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Turning PDAs into chatterboxes

New technology lets your handheld do the talking--even in another language. One PDA is due to be shipped in the next few days to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The latest handheld devices are finding their voice.

First there were PDAs that recognized written words on menus, street signs or business cards. Now there are PDAs being developed that can recognize verbal commands, translate them into another language, and then announce the translation in anything from a shout to a murmur.

Handhelds from Hewlett-Packard and IBM with built-in talking capabilities are still in development. But one talking PDA, known as the Phraselator, is due to be shipped in the next few days to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The device, built by Marine Acoustics and sold by VoxTec, both of Middletown, R.I., is one of the first handhelds to have talking technology built into the device. Currently, scanning and translation capabilities must be added to most other PDAs.

Analysts believe these smarter PDAs could find a broad audience. The one drawback, though, is that PDA owners are used to a silent device and might be put off by any machine that can read or shout, said Jupiter Media Metrix analyst Joe Laszlo.

"It'll be a generation or two before people will get comfortable with a PDA shouting at you," Laszlo said.

VoxTec's Phraselator can translate among hundreds of languages. The 500 devices on their way to Afghanistan have preprogrammed phrases already translated to Urdu, with different tones for the announcements, said Marine Acoustics spokesman Bernie Patterson.

A stern, authoritarian voice shouts certain phrases such as "Halt!" and "Drop your weapon!" while a more gentle tone is used for phrases like "Can I help you?"

Among other talking gadgets, IBM is working on a translation engine available on the Web from AltaVista for its devices. And HP has a prototype device called "The Translator" that is actually a working Jornada with three existing external elements--a camera, a scanner and translation software--attached to it.

The Jornada uses the camera to take a photograph. An optical scanner then lifts the text off the photograph and sends it to the translation software. There, the phrases are matched against thousands of phrases on tap.

The talking devices are mostly made from existing software and hardware, according to the companies.