Microsoft Plans To Launch Real-Time Translation For Skype In 2014

This year, the Universal Translator is coming to a Windows 8 PC near you

Microsoft has announced that its real-time speech translation project is nearing completion, with the company expecting to launch a beta version of the Skype Translator service later this year.

The technology, based on decades of research, allows people who don’t speak the same language communicate freely, and even preserves the speaker’s intonation and rhythm. It has been compared to the Universal Translator, a device that helps various intelligent species understand each other in the fictional Star Trek universe.

“Skype Translator opens up so many possibilities to make meaningful connections in ways you never could before in education, diplomacy, multilingual families and in business,” wrote Gurdeep Singh Pall, head of Lync and Skype at Microsoft.

He demonstrated the progress of the project at the first annual CODE conference – a technology event in California organised by Re/Code, where Google has already revealed its own design for a self-driving car.

Overcoming the language barrier

In November 2012, Microsoft’s senior VP for Research Rick Rashid shocked the audiences in Tianjin, China, by delivering a presentation in Mandarin without knowing how to speak a word in this foreign language.

Skype TranslatorHe was using a technical demo for the Microsoft Translate engine, which is capable of advanced speech recognition thanks to the ‘Deep Neural Network’ technology developed at the University of Toronto. This technology allowed Microsoft researchers to drastically cut the number of translation errors, and made the ‘Universal Translator’ concept viable.

During the latest demo at CODE, Pall talked to a German colleague via Skype, with voice translated from English to German and back. The Microsoft Translate engine simply converted English speech into text, translated it into German, then re-ordered the words and read the result out loud.

In its current form, Skype simultaneously provides transcript of the conversation on the screen, where the translation can be compared to the original.

“We’ve invested in speech recognition, automatic translation and machine learning technologies for more than a decade, and now they’re emerging as important components in this more personal computing era,” wrote Pall.

The Skype Translator project is a collaboration between teams at Skype, Bing and Microsoft Research Lab, and the same language recognition technology is used by Microsoft’s Cortana personal assistant. It is also likely to become an integral part of Windows Phone OS.

In the initial months, Skype Translator could provide a serious boost for Microsoft’s communications platform. Skype has been one of the company’s greatest successes – acquired in 2011 for $8.5bn (£5.2bn), it currently boasts more than 300 million active monthly users around the world. However, its market share is being slowly eroded by a new breed of mobile messaging services like WhatsApp, Viber, BlackBerry Messenger and SnapChat.

Near real-time translation could become a unique selling point, especially attractive for global businesses, although it’s not currently clear if the service will be free, or require the user to pay a subscription fee.

In the middle of last year, Skype announced it was working on 3D telepresence, but the company warned it might take years to refine the technology and get it into shape ready for mass adoption.

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