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Harvard startup MyLingo wants to turn your smartphone into a movie translator

Posted by Scott Kirsner  May 29, 2013 08:15 AM

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Update: In December 2013, Polak told me she had raised $750,000 from angel investors, and decided to take a leave from Harvard. She's moving to Los Angeles "to focus on the company" full-time, she says...

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Growing up in a Connecticut household that mostly spoke Polish, Olenka Polak and her brother Adam had first-hand experience in how language can be a barrier to participating in the culture. And that led the siblings, years later, to start a company that would help make a key part of American culture — the movies — more welcoming to those who don't speak English.

The Polaks are co-founders of myLINGO, a still-stealthy startup based at Harvard's Innovation Lab. myLINGO is developing a mobile app that would make it easy to rent, for 99 cents, a movie's audio track in a wide variety of languages. And it'd be useful not just for theatrical releases, but also for on-demand or DVD viewing at home. "You can imagine a scenario where the kids are fine watching a cartoon in English, but Abuela and Abuelo would want to listen to the audio in Spanish," says Olenka Polak, right, who just wrapped up her sophomore year at Harvard. (Her brother is a 2012 graduate of Johns Hopkins.)

For a demo, Polak started playing the Spanish version of "Toy Story 2" on her laptop. The prototype app on her iPhone listened to the soundtrack for 20 seconds or so to figure out what part of the movie was playing, and when I put the earbuds in, I could hear Buzz Lightyear speaking in English, perfectly synchronized. The app checks in every few minutes with the soundtrack on the film or DVD, just to make sure it is still in the right spot. (Audio processing expert Dan Ellis of Columbia University is an advisor to myLINGO.)

Polak says that Hollywood studios record the dialogue of blockbuster releases in as many as 25 different languages, for both theatrical and DVD releases, so the alternate versions are already being produced. Smaller films are typically recorded in French, Italian, German, and Spanish. The myLINGO app would let users search for movies available in their preferred language, and then rent the audio file for 24 hours.

MyLINGO won $10,000 in last month's Harvard College Innovation Challenge.

Polak's hope is that the studios would see myLINGO as something that helps them expand the audience for their theatrical releases and DVDs. "We think that today, there are a lot of immigrants who are not in seats," Polak says. But she's just now discussing myLINGO's technology with several top executives at Hollywood studios, so we'll have to see how they react. Seems to me like an idea with big potential...

Here's Polak talking about the idea at Harvard earlier this year.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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