Facebook has bought out the developer of an automated voice recognition and translation app. Though plans haven’t been officially announced, it seems likely Facebook will use the technology to bring together users who speak different languages.
The purchase is of Pittsburg firm Mobile Technologies, which offers an app called Jibbigo, available on iOS and Android. The app combines voice recognition and translation to allow two people who speak different languages to have a phone conversation. That’s something Google has tried to do itself on Android, with mixed results.
The app also has an offline mode that uses a dictionary stored on the phone or tablet: in this set up, the two speakers pass the phone back and forth. While most such technology is billed as a tool for tourists, Mobile Technologies says Jibbigo has also proven useful for healthcare workers carrying out humanitarian missions, often in countries where they don’t know the language well.
For what it’s worth, when I checked the app out today, it was not particularly impressive: the voice recognition worked well, but many of the translations simply timed out. It appeared likely this was at least partially because the takeover announcement has led to a spike in use. However, trying to translate the audio from a YouTube clip of a man speaking Japanese at a press conference produced gibberish.
Staff who work on Jibbigo will now move to Facebook’s office’s in California. For the moment it appears the app will remain available with the same business model (the app is free to download and use online, but you pay for each language pack you get for offline use.) In the long term, Facebook plans to use the tech itself. The company’s Tom Stocky wrote:
Although more than a billion people around the world already use Facebook every month, we are always looking for ways to help connect the rest of the world as well. Voice technology has become an increasingly important way for people to navigate mobile devices and the web, and this technology will help us evolve our products to match that evolution.
Facebook wouldn’t necessarily have much use for the live voice translation: while it would be a neat feature for its video chat service, it seems a fair assumption that the vast majority of people who are friends on the site speak the same language.
Instead the individual components may be more useful. Reliable voice recognition that works well for a range of different languages, accents and dialects would certainly be handy for expanding Facebook’s take-up on mobile devices around the world. Meanwhile reliable translation could allow for more engagement on pages, for example by people from different countries commenting on a global brand or event, which in turn could expand the audience for advertisers.