Microsoft has demonstrated a real-time translator that seems close to Star Trek's vision of a universal translator. On Tuesday evening, CEO Satya Nadella joined other Microsoft employees in demonstrating such a system, which will first be rolled out through the company's Skype video communications tool.
The presentation was made at the Code Conference in Ranchos Palos Verdes, California. Two Microsoft employees conducted a conversation, one in English and the other in German, while a generated voice and text-over-video displayed the near-simultaneous translation.
The translation system will be dubbed Skype Translator when it is offered in that product. It is expected to be available as a Windows 8 beta app sometime this year.
'Decades of Work'
In a post Tuesday on The Official Microsoft Blog, Skype/Lync Corporate Vice President Gurdeep Pall said that Skype Translator "results from decades of work by the industry, years of work by our researchers, and now is being developed jointly by the Skype and Microsoft Translator teams." Translator is expected to offer as many 40 languages at launch.
He added that Skype Translator combines Skype voice, instant messaging technologies, Microsoft Translator, and neural network-based speech recognition. Pall noted that Translator "is a great example of why Microsoft invests in basic research."
In another post on the Microsoft Research blog, the team described the inter-departmental cooperation and research advances that led to the development of the Translator. The post pointed out that Microsoft researchers have been "focused on machine translation for more than 10 years," which has led to releases of translations for the company's product-support Knowledge Base and the text-to-text translator offered through the Bing search engine.
Skype, according to Microsoft, has 300 million users each month, and handles over 2 billion minutes of conversation daily. The real-time translator, if successful in its beta stage on Skype, will likely become available across all of Microsoft's products, including its Windows Phone devices, Windows OS computers and tablets, and Xbox consoles.
More Human Interaction
At least until others catch up, the Translator could offer a significant competitive advantage to the company, especially among business users. Nadella, among many other executives at major computing companies, has spoken of the move toward a more human interaction through devices, and a real-time translator is certainly a substantial step in that direction.
Laura DiDio, an analyst with industry research firm Information Technology Intelligence Corp., told us that this kind of service "removes yet another barrier for fully doing business worldwide, 24 by 7." She said she uses Skype frequently "to do interviews in other countries for reports," and this can make a difference for those interviewees whose English is not great.
While Google, IBM and others may well offer a similar real-time translation service at some point, DiDio noted that Microsoft support, if it is offered with the service, could help distinguish its translation service.