The new system is a cut-down version of NEC's Tabitsu translation software for personal computers and has been designed to run on PDAs running Microsoft's Pocket PC software.
Using the software, which has been given the provisional name Transpeech, users can speak in English or Japanese and have their sentences translated to the other language, displayed on the PDA screen and spoken by a voice synthesizer in the PDA.
"NEC has been researching speech recognition for around 20 years," said Shinichi Okugawa, group manager of the broadband and multimedia research and development division at NEC CustomTechnica. "We started developing the PDA version in the summer of 2001. The target is to finish development this autumn or this winter."
As part of the development program, the system is getting its first real world test during the FIFA World Cup, which is co-hosted by South Korea and Japan.
The company has distributed a number of PDAs to retailers at Tokyo's Narita Airport, the main international gateway for Japan, and is asking the shops to use them and report back their experiences.
The system has two basic parts. First it must recognise what is being said and then translate that into the other language. The Narita system handles English and Japanese in each direction but no other languages.
In use the system took 10 seconds to recognise each sentence and several more seconds to translate, making a smooth conversation pretty difficult. Where recognition is not totally correct, users can tap the keyboard and type in new words to replace the incorrect ones.
"On PCs, the translation is almost real time but the processor and memory limitations of the PDA mean it takes longer," said Okugawa. "We would like to shorten the time needed to a few seconds," he added.