May 21, 2010

New iConji language for the symbol-minded

Local technopreneur Kai Staats is setting out to prove that a picture is not worth a thousand words – it’s worth one language-spanning, artistically rendered word that he hopes will connect the globe.

Staats, with the help of a team of creative and technical minds, launched iConji this month. iConji is a set of user-created 32×32-pixel symbols – a lexiConji – that represent words or ideas, not dissimilar from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics or American Sign Language. The major difference, of course, is that the symbols are delivered electronically to computers, phones, tablets, etc. Therein lies the key to iConji adoption, Staats hopes.

He pointed out that just over a decade ago, almost half of the world’s population had not used a telephone. By the end of 2008, mobile phone use was estimated to include 4 billion people – 60 percent of the global population. The program will start with applications for the Web, Facebook and iPhones. Users can customize their own database of symbols that will display as personalized keyboards. The keyboards, or “buckets,” are limited only by the amount of memory space on the device.

Staats developed iConji through his research and development company Over the Sun LLC. It started as a distant idea – an “ah-ha” moment – over a beer with his former business partner Dan Burcaw. Burcaw’s company, Double Encore, developed the iPhone app, which is expected to release soon.

In all, Staats worked with more than a dozen other individuals, none of who have training in linguistics or social sciences.

Conjuring iConji has been “the most fun I’ve ever had,” Staats said. And that’s the point.

The system has to be fun and interactive to be widely adopted – “as fun as Facebook,” Staats explained. He realizes that the language will probably be used mainly as an entertaining tool for texting, but he doesn’t think it will end there.

“I want this to be recognized as a full language,” he said.

User-generated symbols

Just as languages have evolved over millennia, Staats feels that iConji will progress – much more rapidly – as users submit their own symbols. Not all symbols will transcend cultural barriers. The symbol for “hello” – an open hand with an outward pointing arrow – might carry different connotations in different countries. That’s why any user can submit his or her own symbol, with the added incentive of being able to track its use.

In addition to carrying a word meaning, the symbols will also have data tied to them – date-time stamps; geographic location; and the actual language translations. Individual users can even manipulate the symbols they put into their personal “bucket,” adding extra information that the recipient can view with a click or a touch on the picture, or small character tags to express grammatical elements such as tense and parts of speech. For example, a small plus sign in the corner of a symbol makes it possessive.

While iConjigation of verbs is not necessary, iConji does have some rules. For one, anyone can contribute to the lexiConji, but the product itself is not open source; the code is proprietary. Symbols representing commercial products are verboten without a license, allowing iConji to remain free for users by generating revenue for commercial symbols. Companies would pay a nominal fee every time their symbol is used, and in return, would be able to know where and when people were discussing the product.

Over the Sun also plans to license a software development kit to encourage others to build iConji apps. Whether the kits will be free has yet to be determined.

Also to be determined are the future uses of (and revenue streams for) iConji. Staats already envisions educational applications, since each symbol carries its own translation. iConji launched in Chinese, English, French, German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese and Spanish. While iConji isn’t meant to compete with translation tools such as iGoogle or Babblefish, it could be useful for language learning.

Like its uses, the future applications for iConji are virtually limitless. Staats mused that the symbols could be associated to musical notes or sounds so that poetry could be a musical composition or vice versa. No matter what the future holds for the program, it will have to start with simple dialogue – an iConjisation.

Kristen Tatti covers technology for the Northern Colorado Business Report. She can be reached at 970-221-5400, ext. 219 or ktatti@ncbr.com.

Local technopreneur Kai Staats is setting out to prove that a picture is not worth a thousand words – it’s worth one language-spanning, artistically rendered word that he hopes will connect the globe.

Staats, with the help of a team of creative and technical minds, launched iConji this month. iConji is a set of user-created 32×32-pixel symbols – a lexiConji – that represent words or ideas, not dissimilar from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics or American Sign Language. The major difference, of course, is that the symbols are delivered electronically to computers, phones, tablets, etc. Therein lies the key to iConji adoption, Staats…

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