Thursday, August 28, 2003

Device has dogs talking

Japanese company claim it can 'translate' barks of canines

By Robin L. Flanigan
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Sophie, an affectionate Pembroke Welsh corgi, is in the back yard helping us test a gadget that claims to translate dog barks into human language. The message that filters through her wireless microphone into the palm-sized transmitter in my hand is clear:

It's an expletive.

Bowlingual is a Japanese import from the Takara Corp., the same company that brought us Transformers in the 1980s and dancing flowers in the '90s. Program your canine's breed, gender and name, then wait for the yips and woofs, which get turned into some 200 sentences, such as "These are my rules," "Did you hear that?" and "I've got a funny feeling."

Potentially huge market

More than 250,000 Bowlinguals have sold in Japan since debuting late last year. With the United States home to more than six times the number of dogs in Japan - more than 60 million of them live here - Takara is hoping the overseas launch is worth the time it took to convert the devices to English.

Bowlingual, which hits the market this month and will be sold at Brookstone and some department stores - comes with a $120 price tag, entering the already lucrative $30 billion pet-product market.

"This company's going to make a fortune, I'll tell you that much," says Melissa Cocola, a certified dog trainer from Penfield, N.Y. "People will grasp at anything out there to understand their dog a little bit better. But I see this as a Fisher-Price toy. I hope people don't read too much into it."

Takara says such skepticism is natural, especially given the temperamental prototypes - one of which we tested - that at times translate during silence or refuse to translate despite numerous barks. Spokesman Peter Harwood guarantees that the glitch will be fixed before the machines are sold.

Besides, the company has the reputation of acoustic researcher Matsumi Suzuki behind Bowlingual. Suzuki generated a dictionary of dog vocabulary after years of transforming barks into digital voiceprints. Late last year Suzuki authenticated an audiotape attributed to Osama bin Laden.

Time magazine named Bowlingual one of the best inventions of 2002. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi personally presented two of them to Russian President Vladimir Putin in May during festivities to celebrate the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg.

The device even won an "Ig Nobel Peace Prize" - for "promoting peace and harmony between the species" - from Harvard University, which annually honors unusual innovations that spur interest in science, medicine and technology. (In the Interdisciplinary Research category, Karl Kruszelnicki of the University of Sydney earned top recognition for his comprehensive survey of belly-button lint.)

Multiple uses

Bowlingual also has other functions, including the "Home Alone Mode," which records your dog's barks for up to 12 hours while you're away, and the "Medical Reference Mode," which explains things like normal vital signs, basic emergency steps and 10 signs of cancer.

Cat owners should know that the Meowlingual is under construction and expected to hit store shelves in Japan next March.

But don't break out the catnip just yet. Takara is unsure whether to take its feline version of the translator overseas.

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