Science Fiction continues to become Science Fact

This blog is an update of a topic from my November 2014 blog.  In those comments, I mentioned the science fiction of the Star Trek programs that have evolved into the today’s (and tomorrow’s) commercial products.  The communicator can be seen as a direct influencer of today’s “smart” phones.  Since then, there have been some interesting developments related to phones.  But we are not near the potential of the communication devices (I am changing the description from phones).

There have been significant improvements in hearing aids.  These are developing features that are bringing additional capabilities to hearing (communication) assistance devices.  Currently some hearing aids have Bluetooth capabilities.  The coupling can be done directly to iPhones.  Android phones are capable of similar coupling with enabled hearing aids.  (I have been informed that the battery usage with Android devices is slighter greater, which should improve in the next generation of features.)  So it is possible, to have your phone go directly to a hearing assisted device (HAD).  There is no need for other devices to listen to your phone conversation.   The interesting point is that there is at least one type of hearing aid that is not coupled as a pair to Bluetooth.  What does that mean?  It is possible to have each ear primarily receiving signals from separate devices or the environment and a device.

Why should we care?  There is a new product that will be available later this year called “Travis” [Ref. 1].  “Travis” indicates that it will have the capability of translating 20 different spoken languages off-line and 80 with an on-line connection.  The program does not auto select, but requires input of the desired language.  [Disclaimer: This product is in early development as a crowd sourced effort, and is not available to the general public yet.  Consequently, the full performance and accuracy are unknown.]  Why mention this?  “Travis” will have Bluetooth capabilities.

This will be the first of many such devices that will be able to couple to HADs.  Given that capability and the ability to have the device in each ear coupled with different devices opens up some interesting possibilities.  For this to be effective, the performance needs to be very good.  One of the issues with conventional hearing aids is that they end up with less than ideal performance.  In the article discussing new approaches, there is mention that only 25% of people who need a hearing aid actually use one. [Ref. 2]  There is work being done on developing methods to sort different streams of input signals so that the person is able to sort out what s/he needs.  This need is explained by the term “cocktail party problem”, which explains that distinguishing separate voices from the background noise is done through the brain separating incoming signals into separate streams.  That capability is not incorporated into hearing assist devices – yet.

There are more issues before we can get to a device that is represented by the Star Trek communicator.  The directional microphone that is incorporated into the emblem worn in the program is not available, but could be.  With the ever increasing power of computers, many of the functions of translating and communicating will be available in packages much smaller than today’s phones. Power is another issue that is slowly being solved.  Some efforts are being made to use energy harvesting from a person’s normal daily activities.  The incorporation of nano-sized devices is being investigated for various applications, which would assist in prolonging battery life.

There are still many things that need to be developed.  Memory is a major problem.  The need to store not only words but nuances of other languages starts to rapidly increase the memory size, especially as different languages are added.  There have been some articles that indicate a vocabulary of 2,000 words provides the ability to “get by” in a language.  For business/technical conversations, that number increase by a least an order of magnitude.

Take the translator function one step farther.  There is a need to be separate Bluetooth connections to a phone for the HAD and for the microphone.  The latter is needed to translate the spoken phrase into the receiving language.  The other needed function is to be able to reproduce the speaker’s actual voice in that language, which will be coming in the future.

There have been more developments of the tri-corder.  This will be covered in a future blog.  Enjoy being part of the future as it develops.



Disclaimer: While mentioning “Travis the translator” in this blog, this is not an endorsement of the device being developed.  I have no financial interest in the company outside of having ordered a unit.

About Walt

I have been involved in various aspects of nanotechnology since the late 1970s. My interest in promoting nano-safety began in 2006 and produced a white paper in 2007 explaining the four pillars of nano-safety. I am a technology futurist and is currently focused on nanoelectronics, single digit nanomaterials, and 3D printing at the nanoscale. My experience includes three startups, two of which I founded, 13 years at SEMATECH, where I was a Senior Fellow of the technical staff when I left, and 12 years at General Electric with nine of them on corporate staff. I have a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, an MBA from James Madison University, and a B.S. in Physics from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

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