Ili is designed to translate phrases or questions around travel, rather than say business or medical language. Basically, ili is a speaking travel dictionary and phrase book. It works best with typical tourist questions such as: Where is the train station? May I have a glass of water? Do you have a different colour? Please take me to the airport.
The device can’t cope with long-winded sentences or multiple thought bubbles at once. The idea is to keep sentences short with one idea at a time. You’re not going to have a wonderful deep and meaningful conversation with someone, but you will get to that fabulous cake shop you’ve heard so much about.
I used each language (Japanese, Spanish, Mandarin) as the input language through Google Translate, and the translations are reasonably accurate. When I first started using the device, a Japanese speaker said the translations weren’t exactly right, but the meaning was there. I realised that I needed to speak slower, and if there’s too much background noise the device doesn’t work that well.
Unfortunately, ili only translates English. Your question is translated, but the responses are not. The creators say that because the device can’t cope with any long rambling sentences, for now, ili is a one-way translator.
So if someone starts giving directions in Japanese, you’re stuck. You could ask them to point, or ask them a closed ended question that has a yes or no answer. For the way I travel this is fine, but for some, one-way translation may be an issue.
There’s always Google Translate, which has over 100 languages, can cope with longer sentences, and has a conversation mode, but the voice-to-voice translation doesn’t work offline, and this is where Google Translate lets me down.
In a practical design feature, ili’s speaker is at the back of the device. So when you speak into the front, the translation goes through the speaker out the back of the device towards the person you are facing.
Ili also has useful playback features, so you can repeat the translation, or check that the device understood what you said. If the input English is correct, then the translation is also correct. The device surprisingly sharpened my English. When I asked “Please show me the vegetarian options”, ili changed it to “Please show me the vegetarian dishes”.
However, there is one minor annoying aspect to ili. It has a high-pitched squeaky voice for Japanese and the English playback, but at least there’s normal pitch for Mandarin and Spanish. I’d also like to see a volume control.
The battery lasts a while; the device only needs to be charged around once every three days, but it needs to be turned off between uses.
I like to travel light, and while ili is not perfect it has enough features to earn a place in my backpack.