Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=79769
Story Retrieval Date: 5/18/2013 10:21:09 PM CST
WASHINGTON – Since the start of the Iraq conflict, iPods have been connecting U.S. troops to snippets of American culture while they are overseas. But now the men and women in the field can use the popular device to strengthen their connections to Iraqis.
iPods with a language translation program created by a Florida software developer called Vcom3D were sent to Iraq in the fall of 2007 with two brigade combat teams in the 10th Mountain Division, based in Fort Drum, N.Y.
The device, called the Vcommunicator Mobile LC, goes for about $2,000 and was developed in response to the military’s need for language and culture training, said Scott Everhart, marketing and sales manager for Vcom3D.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, where reconstruction and counterinsurgency depend on winning support from the native populations, communication between U.S. troops and locals is frequent and essential, said Col. Allen Raymond, who led a team of about 40 advisers to an Iraqi Army brigade in the Tigris River Valley.
The Vcommunicator was created with advice from U.S. soldiers, native Iraqis and translation companies, said product manager Ernest Bright.
It can make routine missions more efficient by alleviating soldiers’ long waits for a human translator, Everhart explained. Sometimes squads have to wait several hours for a translator just to ask a simple question such as “Can I see your ID?” he said.
“The practical reality is, there’s rarely enough translators to go around,” said Cory Youmans, director for acquisition support at the Army’s Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation, or PEO STRI.
The Vcommunicator is not the only translator being used overseas. Voxtec International Inc., a company in Annapolis, Md., that produces translation technology, has sold thousands of its voice-activated machines to the military, said Clayton Millis, Voxtec’s director of sales and marketing. And in April 2007, IBM announced it would provide the military with 1,000 two-way translation devices and 10,000 copies of the software for future use.
These multiple and ongoing efforts to improve translation capabilities come in the wake of the Iraq Study Group report, which stated that “efforts in Iraq, military and civilian, are handicapped by Americans’ lack of language and cultural understanding.”
With the Vcommunicator, soldiers can select a mission on a standard iPod menu. Each mission contains key sentences listed in the order they are likely to be used. For example, the first three phrases in the vehicle checkpoint mission are: “Peace be upon you;” “We need to search your vehicle;” “Stop your vehicle.” English can be translated into Iraqi Arabic, Kurdish, Pashto or Dari. Troops also may add or modify phrases and insert images.
Once a phrase is selected, it appears in Arabic script with a phonetic aid. If a user is reluctant to say the words, the device can be plugged in to a speaker that will play the phrase out loud. And for added cultural guidance, there is the option of watching an animated character act out a sentence’s corresponding facial expressions and gestures.
“Body positioning … can alter meaning to the words being said,” Everhart said.
In Arab culture, there are specific ways of communicating in different situations, and if U.S. troops don’t adhere to these norms they can shut down their rapport with entire communities, Bright added.
A few months before deploying to Iraq, the 10th Mountain Division requested a one-way, multimedia language translation device with mission-specific vocabulary and cultural training.
An official said the Army conducted an industry-wide search for a translator that best met these criteria, and the Vcommunicator was chosen.
Its interface is user-friendly because most people are familiar with how iPods work, Bright said.
And in order for soldiers to be “hands-free and weapons-ready,” the mechanism attaches to a soldier’s wrist, he added.
“They were really impressed,” Bright said of the soldiers who tested out the device, which soon will be used by the 101st Airborne Division.
While Vcom3D is still waiting for feedback directly from Iraq, the response from soldiers at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana was “very positive,” Bright said. Troops tested the device by passing through JRTC’s simulated Arabic towns, and communicating with role players native to various Iraqi regions.
But not everyone is convinced of the translator’s utility in the field.
“In most cases it would take too long to scroll through the iPod and select the desired question to ask,” Raymond, the Army colonel, wrote in an e-mail. He added that there could be volume and decipherability problems amidst background noise such as vehicle engines.
However, Raymond said that the Vcommunicator could be a useful language learning tool for soldiers in their spare time.
“It would be a good thing to play with while bonding with counterpart Iraqi soldiers,” he added. “Anything that serves as a ‘conversation piece’ is helpful.”