New tool may enhance the way Soldiers communicate with locals in theater
July 30, 2008
FORT HOOD, Texas - Soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division could soon have a new tool for their upcoming deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom that enhances the way they communicate with the people living in Iraq.
A few First Team troopers, along with senior leaders, got their first glimpse of the Vcommunicator Mobile, a light-weight, compact, hand-held translation device and cultural awareness aid, during a demonstration of the capability at the 1st Cav. Div. headquarters here July 21-22.
Currently in use by approximately 700 military service members in Iraq and Afghanistan, the one-way translation device offers hundreds of phrases in five different languages to include Iraqi Arabic, Kurdish, Dari, Pashto and Modern Standard Arabic. It also offers, via video cues, cultural gestures in the form of hand signals that may be common to a specific region, allowing for cultural awareness.
"It's very useful in situations where you may have only one to two interpreters on the ground, and about 80 to 90 Soldiers on the ground, so you may not have enough interpreters to go around in a particular situation," said Ernie Bright, one of the developers of the Vcommunicator, who gave the demonstration of the tool. "The real beauty of it is that the technology has been designed so that anyone who hasn't had any training on it, can use it."
"Soldiers see that this will help them to reduce mistakes and misunderstandings because they will be able to communicate with the local population," he added, explaining that the device has been designed to help reduce language and cultural barriers Soldiers experience while in theater.
The main parts of the compact system include an iPod, which attaches by a cord to a small speaker and then both parts fit into two straps that are placed on a Soldier's arm. The Vcommunicater kit also includes a solar charger and a carrying pouch.
"Soldiers are wearing 80 pounds of gear already, so it was important for them to have something that is light weight, very compact and that fits into a small pouch," said Bright. "The device can be attached to their arm so their hands are always free."
With the swipe of a finger over the device, Soldiers can select the language they need from a menu and choose a topic from a mission list to find an appropriate phrase for whatever situation they find themselves in. The menu includes such topics as basic conversation; cordon and search; intelligence gathering; building trust and relationships; raids; detainee processing; vehicle checkpoints and coordinating missions with Iraqi Security Forces among many other possible missions.
Once they choose the mission, they will see a list of phrases in English. Each of the phrases have a phonetic Arabic translation beneath them and when Soldiers press on the phrase they want to use, a video will play showing an animated, virtual Soldier saying the phrase in Arabic and the voice of the animated character plays through the device's speaker. Along with that, the phonetic spelling of the Arabic phrase also appears on the screen.
Bright explained that there are three major aspects to what the Vcommunicator does -a learning piece, a communication piece and a mission-aid piece.
Soldiers can learn Arabic or other language phrases from the Vcommunicator or they can use the device to communicate for them through the tool's speaker, according to Bright.
The tool also comes in handy when Soldiers need to make announcements to large crowds, as the device can be attached to a loud speaker. Within the mission-aid piece, Soldiers can add new information and updates to the device as often as they need to.
"By using commercial off the shelf software, there are a plethora of items you can add to it," said Bright. "The (Vcommunicator) gives Soldiers a full customization capability-where they can download maps, photos, videos, new missions and new vocabulary," said Bright.
One of the ways photos and maps would come in useful, according to Bright, are when Soldiers need assistance from locals in a village to find out information.
"All they need to do is point to the map displayed on the screen and use the Vcommunicator to communicate phrases such as 'shows me on the map,'" he said.
Bright saw the device go from concept to usage in just nine months, from November 2006 to August of 2007. In April of this year, he fielded the device to Soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division and said he never gets tired of helping Soldiers.
"I have tremendous pride in my job getting to do this and you can see the light in the eyes of the Soldiers and it's interesting when you go to conferences and hear them say 'this will make my life so much easier,'" said Bright.
Bright will be giving nine of the devices to three of the 1st Cavalry Division's brigades, allowing these units an opportunity to work with the devices in training prior to their upcoming deployment to Iraq.
First Team Soldiers who saw the capability demonstration said they see the utility for the new tool, especially as they prepare to deploy to Iraq later this year and early next year.
"It's easy to use and it offers a lot of applications," said Enterprise, Utah native Sgt. Edward Hunt, an intelligence analyst for the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cav. Div. "It's better than any system I've seen out there, especially with it having an iPod, so there are a lot of things it can do and it has a lot of promise."
"I can't wait to actually see it in use in the field," he added.