I began developing the ili translator due to the numerous situations in which my poor language skills prevented me from enjoying traveling.
As I was born and raised in Japan, my mother tongue is Japanese. When I turned 18, I went on my first trip overseas to the United States. One night, while ordering at a Taco Bell, I told the waiter,
“I want to have a water.”
Despite the fact that I had studied English for 6 years in elementary school, the waiter could not understand what I was trying to say because of my poor grammar and terrible pronunciation.
I was shocked and disappointed that I couldn’t even say one simple sentence.
I love traveling abroad but there were so many times when I couldn’t express myself and it almost made me not want to travel anymore.
In Spain, I was unable to buy lip balm. After getting sick in China, I didn’t know how ask for stomach medicine in Chinese…
I always dreamed of breaking the language barrier and solving this problem for myself and everyone else in order to make travel easier, more convenient and exciting.
We first developed a translation app
Before ili was conceived, we developed a mobile translation app which required connection to the internet in order to function properly.
Soon after, we realized this would pose a problem in foreign countries. As anyone who has experience travelling internationally knows, it’s extremely difficult to find a Wi-Fi or 3G/4G connection as a tourist.
Even when you do, it’s usually extremely slow and inefficient, and sometimes it isn’t even free!
Several internet-dependent translation apps and devices were already available on the market, however none of them were used in travel situations, therefore we decided to make a standalone translation device that can be used anywhere, anytime.
Speed is the most important factor for translation device
To find out the most important feature of a translation app/device, we asked 100 people and reached a conclusion based on the results we gathered.
People who had absolutely no experience using such an app or device had selected translation accuracy. People who had experience using a translation app or device during traveling felt that translation speed was the most important factor.
We also found out that even a one second delay causes an awkward moment and makes people reluctant to use the translator. The more time the process takes (including connection to Wi-Fi), the more tedious it is to use. Therefore, we put our main focus on shortening the response time.
The fastest translation device
During the early stages of development, the response time was 5 seconds. The original program was running on powerful servers, so in order to improve the speed, we tuned the software to make it run even faster on our standalone CPU. We also selected only words and phrases that are used in traveling to decrease the time necessary to search for the best translation. The result turned out phenomenal. The device was able to translate phrases as fast as 0.2 seconds response time.
One of the toughest decisions we had to make during development was to remove the two-way function of ili. At first, we implemented the two-way functionality, but most of the time it didn’t work as well as expected.
People are unsatisfied with two-way
One of the main reasons for making ili a one-way device is that people who are being spoken to do not know how to use the translator. Most people tend to speak long sentences, or use slang and strong dialects which ili isn’t programmed for. While the travelers were able to communicate with a local, they ended up being unsatisfied with the device because it wasn’t as effective when the person opposite attempted to use it.
Two-way is more complicated
We also noticed that the two-way function makes communication more complicated. In order to select both input and output languages for multiple people to use, the device would have to incorporate a display and more buttons which would make it more confusing. We designed ili without any unnecessary buttons and displays to make it as simple to use as possible.
More people use one-way
The decision to make ili one-way turned out to be a great success. From children to the elderly, everyone could use ili with just a simple push of a button. As a result, more people were willing to use the translator. We still get many requests to make a two-way translator, however, we strongly believe that even as a one-way device, ili is the ideal translation device for travelers.
Of course, translation accuracy is also extremely important, therefore we invested a lot of time and effort into making ili as accurate as possible.
Dedicated multilingual team
We are working on improving translation accuracy every day in our linguistics lab. In this lab, we have multilingual team members from different countries who work on developing the translation engine database.
We research customer needs, gather information from different sources, and discuss what is the most “useful” translation engine for travelers.
How do we achieve this? We list up phrases and words based on the travelers’ needs for hundreds of situations and different travel patterns, insert them into the engine, and perform tests. By repeating this cycle over and over again, ili’s translation engine is constantly evolving, improving, and upgrading.
It is also very important that users know how to use the translator correctly. Although it is not difficult at all, users need to learn some tips such as:
- Ask simple questions that other people can answer with a yes or no.
- Split one sentence into shorter phrases, and say them one by one.
- Avoid fillers, slang and technical jargon.
As users learn new tips, their satisfaction grows higher, therefore we decided to provide services to educate and further help our users.
We published guidebooks for each destination in different languages (Japan, China, and Spain guides for English natives, USA and Japan guides for Chinese natives). It helps users understand in what situations and what kind of phrases to use, as well as to how to enjoy traveling with ili.
Video chat service
We launched a video chat support service with a dedicated customer support team who can provide help and teach customers how to use their devices. After launching this service, we have been flooded with positive feedback from customers telling us they were able to get much better use out of their ili’s as a result. According to one customer, “I was able to learn so much from the video support and now I feel a lot more confident in traveling with my ili”
Our journey has just begun. Our final goal is for every traveler to being exploring the world and discover something new, with ili.
So far, we are getting hundreds of positive reviews from travelers, saying ili “helped them find their way”, and that they “couldn’t have this experience without ili.” To make more travelers happy, we will never cease from our journey and mission.