A former Australian plumber's 9-language translation earpiece has started shipping

Lingmo’s TranslateOne2One device, in English-to-Mandarin mode. (Source: Tony Yoo)

Australian startup Lingmo International has started delivering its earpiece that can translate nine languages in real-time.

In June, a prototype of the TranslateOne2One device was unveiled at a United Nations event in Switzerland, with the capability to translate — or more accurately, interpret — English (US and UK), Japanese, French, Chinese, Italian, Spanish, German and Portuguese.

The feedback from that exposure saw the company postpone its original target of mid-July for commercial deliveries, in order to cram in additional features — like adding Arabic as the 9th language and Google Maps onto the device.

“We thought it was better just to hold off a little bit, work on these extra features that people actual want so they get the best out of the device,” Lingmo founder Danny May told Business Insider.

But while the startup, based on the Central Coast just north of Sydney, delayed the launch of its device, a rather large rival — Google — this month revealed its own headphones capable of real-time translation, Google Pixel Buds. In fact, the software feature is part of Google Assistant, so theoretically most new top-end Android smartphones now have this capability.

Far from being spooked, May told Business Insider that the interest in real-time translation generated by Google had prompted more enquiries to his company.

“Our sales went up when they released that product,” May said.

“We have all these other competitors out there doing Bluetooth earpieces that connect to your phone. What really sets us apart is being an independent device — you can put the SIM card into it and away you go. You don’t need to connect to your phone.”

The 3G mobile internet-connected device is still powered by IBM’s artificial intelligence engine Watson, although the training and deep learning that Lingmo has provided is its own intellectual property.

For example, to add the ninth language of Arabic, the startup brought in a native Arabic speaker to talk to Watson repeatedly with a variety of phrases. Watson will continue to improve its translation for all nine languages even after launch, as it learns from the experiences of every person that uses the earphones.

At the time of last week’s launch Lingmo claimed each language had 85% accuracy.

Another issue May had to resolve this year was the problem of the United States using a different frequency for its mobile networks. While mobile phones can accommodate duplicate equipment to account for this, the necessity to keep TranslateOne2One as small as possible has meant that now every customer will receive two earpieces in one order – one for the US, another for the rest of the world.

“We’re giving them the second [unit] for free so they can use it in Europe and US or wherever they are… Two devices, two chargers, two headbands, all double.”

With the Android device able to translate the Brazilian brand of Portuguese, the most orders were from Brazil, which took the company by surprise. TranslateOne2One has also seen significant demand from Spain, US and Australia.

With a pre-order backlog currently being fulfilled, the company estimates that orders placed now for the $US279 earpiece would be delivered by mid-December.

May started his working life as a qualified plumber, before he entered the energy industry. It was during this time, four years ago, that he encountered trouble on a business trip to China.

“My passport was stolen literally 4 hours after I landed,” he told Business Insider in June.

“I went to a police officer and spoke to him using a competitor’s translation service and said ‘hello, how are you’. But it translated that as ‘hello, I love you’.”

The startup has now raised more than $US600,000 from private investors, mainly friends and family, although May claims there has been interest from institutional investors.

Lingmo joined the IBM Global Entrepreneur programme last October, with IBM Watson master inventor Neil Sahota calling the TranslateOne2One “an absolute game-changer for the global translation market” with “significant potential for both commercial and social benefits”.

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