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Woolaroo app uses Vision AI to help preserve native languages

May 5, 2021
Ian Pattison

Head of Customer Engineering, Retail, CPG & Travel, UK&I

One of the most vibrant elements of culture is the use of native languages and the time-honored tradition of storytelling. Anthropologists and linguists have been vocal on the role that language plays in the preservation of culture and how it contributes to the appreciation of heritage. 

Unfortunately, of the more than 7,000 languages that are spoken around the globe, nearly 3,000  are at risk of disappearing. In fact, it’s estimated that on average a language becomes extinct every fourteen days. Google Arts & Culture realized that with some creative technology and partnering with language organisations, we could help create an interactive and educational tool to help promote them.

Enter Woolaroo, an open-source photo-translation platform powered by machine learning and image recognition. The application was built on Google Cloud to encourage users to explore endangered languages around the world. Users are able to take a picture of an object in real-time, and the application returns the word in its native language, along with its pronunciation. 

Woolaroo was created with the philosophy that learning languages is greatly enhanced through engagement and context. By seeing an object in its environment, it’s easier to retain the information and then use it more naturally in conversation. 

With the help of Googlers, Woolaroo was launched in 10 languages, including Calabrian Greek, Louisiana Creole, Maori and Yiddish. During the conception stage of the app, teams from Partner Innovation and Google Arts & Culture put out an open call to the rest of Google to see what lesser-known languages our employees spoke. They then worked with the individuals that responded to develop dictionaries that were reviewed by partner institutions to ensure translations were correct and consistent. 

Woolaroo uses Google Cloud Vision API, which derives insights from images using AutoML or pre-trained models to quickly classify images into millions of predefined categories. This makes AI accessible and useful to more people as AutoML automates the training of these machine learning models.

Our team at Google Arts & Culture creates immersive experiences for people to learn about art, history, culture and more. We are committed to supporting the preservation of heritage and cultural landmarks - including spoken language - through the use of modern technology. The magic of Woolaroo is that it is open source, which means any person or organisation can use it to build something for their own endangered language. To learn about the efforts Google Arts & Culture is involved in, download the Google Arts & Culture app or visit our blog.

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