E3 06: Talkman Impressions

Sony's quirky translation aid combines useful phrases with a colorful character.



LOS ANGELES--Talkman for the PlayStation Portable isn't really a game, but more of a travel aid. In a nutshell, it uses the console's voice-recognition capabilities to detect what you say, and then translates it into a language of your choice. With more than 3,000 phrases in its database, it looks like it'll cover a good number of different circumstances, including the most common tourist activities such as shopping and eating.

The idea came from an awkward chance meeting between the game's Japanese producer and an Italian girl as they sat next to each other on a bench. As they couldn’t find a common language, the idea of using the PSP as some kind of translation device was borne, and Talkman is the result.

When you first load up the game, you choose your own language and gender (important for some of the languages included) and then you're introduced to Max, the multilingual bluebird who acts as your translator. We're treated to some personality footage of Max in a nice-looking cutscene. We see him getting out of bed, reading a newspaper, watching some TV, and then abruptly dancing in a nightclub. The point behind this footage doesn't immediately become clear, but part of the application's appeal is the amusing nature of this bird. One of the motivations for the project was to make people smile as well as communicate more easily.

It takes a little while to set Talkman up, but once you've done it the first time you can save your settings so that jumping in is much quicker next time around. You can choose from UK English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, or Japanese to either translate to or from, but the text throughout will always revert to the "translate from" language.

We were offered a typical scenario in which Talkman might be used, which involved asking questions in a restaurant. As the producer asked the question in English, a list of options relating to the key words spoken appeared, at the top of which was the correct one. Upon choosing this option, Max then proceeded to speak the phrase in the chosen translated language, in this case French.

While the voice recognition was pretty accurate, even in a noisy E3 meeting room, it's important to make sure you've selected the specific environment that would suit your question. When a question regarding shopping was asked in the restaurant section, no correct matches were found. However, as soon as the retail option was selected, the correct match was made immediately.

For each of the translations, the user can also choose how much emotion the phrase is spoken with. This will also then be reflected by Max in an animation--you can make Max cry, for example, to add emphasis when asking a shop assistant for a discount. Interestingly there's a disclaimer on start-up that disassociates Sony Computer Entertainment with any disagreements that may arise from using Talkman. Sounds like a dare.

Overall, it seems that Talkman is a good idea, but it remains to be seen whether or not the idea will convert into sales. How quickly the phrases can be found by the user for translation, or rather how long the other person is willing to wait, might be an issue. Also, the idea of blissfully thrusting your PSP at a complete stranger and remaining confident about retaining ownership of said device might also be a little questionable to the more cynical among us. Still, it's a gap in the market and could complement the forthcoming PSP city guides rather nicely.

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