Microsoft Adding 'Star Trek'-Like Translator to Skype

Wednesday, 28 May 2014 11:09 AM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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Skype, Microsoft's online communications service, will soon be able to translate voice calls in "near real time" between people who speak different languages, much like the legendary universal communicator used in the Star Trek series.

"Ever since we started to speak, we wanted to cross the language boundary," CEO Satya Nadella said at his Code Conference announcement on Tuesday, The Verge reported.

The technology was developed by Microsoft's Skype and Translator team, said Nadella, before showing off a development version of the software. The feature already works to translate back and forth from English to German, and Microsoft plans to get it working with numerous other languages.

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The translator doesn't work in immediate time, reports Engadget.com. Instead, it waits until the speaker finishes talking and then translates his or her statements into subtitles on the screen.

Skype and Lync Vice President Gurdeep Pall said on Microsoft's blog Tuesday that the Skype Translator will appear as a beta app for Windows 8 by the end of this year.

"Today, we have more than 300 million connected users each month, and more than 2 billion minutes of conversation a day as Skype breaks down communications barriers by delivering voice and video across a number of devices, from PCs and tablets, to smartphones and TVs," said Pall. "But language barriers have been a blocker to productivity and human connection; Skype Translator helps us overcome this barrier."

In Tuesday's demonstration, Pall talked with Microsoft employee Diana Heinrichs, who spoke in German, reports re/code.net, discussing Pall's plans to move to London to join the Skype team.

Pall noted that Microsoft chose, on its technology, to allow each person to finish speaking so people could hear each other talk before their words are translated.

Microsoft is still working out how to deal with the massive numbers of conversations taking place on Skype. While using real language that people speak would help the translation technology get better, that could cause privacy issues.

Microsoft said on its Research site that it's been working on its translation technology for more than 10 years, and translating voice calls over Skype was "a nearly impossible task."

However, a separate project eventually improved speech recognition accuracy, allowing for other voice services, such as the company's Cortana voice assistant on its Windows Phone.

The core technology actually debuted during a Microsoft conference in Tianjin, China, in 2012, reports The Verge, when a version of the software was demonstrated onstage by Microsoft Research Chief Rich Rashid, who use the software to translate English into Mandarin.

There have been other real-time translators for some time, including one offered through Japanese wireless carrier NTT Docomo, which has been offering its technology since 2011. Google also offers a feature for text on its translation service.


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