The ili translator may just be one of the hottest travel accessories on the market right now. With the world’s first wearable offline translation device, globetrotters can overcome those dreaded language barriers.
In 2017, Takuro Yoshida launched translation device ili with a promotional video that went viral, amassing over 100 million plays. Since then, the pocket-friendly, wifi-free gadget has proved effective for over 70,000 travellers, allowing them to communicate in real-time with locals by translating English into Japanese, Mandarin or Spanish. Gaining the approval of users including popular travel video blogger Nas Daily, ili snagged the International 2018 Red Dot Design Award and both Japan’s Good Design Award and the DFA Design for Asia Silver Award in 2017. Takuro sat down to tell us his story.
Takuro’s vision for ili was inspired by personal experience. Born and raised in Japan, he moved to America at 18 for school, eventually dropping out of Columbia University to work as a freelance software developer. “When I first moved to the US and tried to order food at Taco Bell, I couldn’t even say ‘I want a glass of water’ because of my pronunciation,” he recalls. From then onwards, he harboured a desire to solve the language barrier issue, hoping to create a world where people could have conversations without worrying about communication, especially whilst abroad.
Takuro first took action in 2013 by establishing Logbar, a Japanese startup that implements innovative technology to offer a new way of communicating. The following year, he developed Ring Zero, a wearable device that controlled the technology you own with your hand gestures that raised over USD 800,000 from its Kickstarter campaign. The product required Bluetooth and wifi to work, which complicated things for consumers, so Takuro knew he didn’t want his next project – a translator – to require either of those. “I decided to create a standalone device that is extremely easy to use and works offline,” he explains.
That was easier said than done. It took him two years to create a handy companion device he was happy with. “After we started development, it turned out that it was extremely difficult to create an offline translation device as it requires a powerful processor, which did not exist in the IoT chip selection,” says Takuro. For the device to work offline – their biggest selling point – they created a built-in translation engine and a library of pre-selected vocabulary and phrases people actually use in travel situations. This made the product lightweight and able to translate in 0.2 seconds, avoiding awkward silences and delays in conversation with strangers. “We wanted to make sure that we ship a product that satisfied people,” explains Takuro. “Simplicity is key. When you are travelling abroad, you tend to be more stressed because you are in a different environment. Therefore, making it easy to use, was crucial.” Delivering on the second part of that equation, ili is also extremely easy to carry. Resembling the distant cousin of an Apple TV remote control, it has a battery life of three days and an interface simple enough for even children to use with only three buttons: a circular translate button which you hold as you speak into it, another to switch output languages, and a power button.
ili has already gained traction in the US and Japan. Whilst its purpose varies for each customer – be it asking for directions, ordering food or drinks, or making friends – the common denominator is that it connects people, something represented in its name; the first and last letters symbolise people with a translator device between them. “Overall, customers have a great experience because, whenever they use it, it surprises people and makes them smile,” says Takuro. “I believe it’s the pure power of ili.” With expansion plans into more languages and dreams for its use beyond travel, that power could only be set to strengthen.