Skype shown automatically translating multilingual voice calls

Universal translation without the Babel fish


Microsoft's Skype will eventually be able to translate voice calls between people. In an on-stage demo at the Code conference today, Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella showed off Skype Translator, an upcoming version of the service that is capable of translating voice conversation in "near real-time" using technology developed by the company's Skype and Translator teams. With it, you can talk in your native language to another user who speaks a different language, and Microsoft will translate it to the other person.

"Ever since we started to speak, we wanted to cross the language boundary," Nadella said before showing off a development version of the software, which will be out in beta later this year and possibly as a commercial product within the next two-and-a-half years. The feature may not come free, Nadella added, but is already good enough to work between English to German, with plans to get it working with a number of other languages.

It may not be free

In a follow-up post, Gurdeep Pall — Microsoft's VP of Skype and Lync said Skype Translator will arrive first as a beta app for Windows 8 by the end of this year. Nadella says the company's eventual goal is to get it on all devices, big or small.

On the Microsoft Research site, the company said it's been working on machine translation for more than a decade, and that translating voice over Skype was "considered a nearly impossible task." However, four years ago the program got a jumpstart with a project that was able to translate phone calls in real-time. A separate project improved speech recognition accuracy, Microsoft said. That eventually bolstered other services that listen to human voices, like Microsoft's Cortana voice assistant for Windows Phone.

Microsoft previewed this two years ago

The core technology behind the feature made its debut at a Microsoft computing conference in Tianjin, China back in 2012. A version of the software was demoed live onstage by Microsoft Research chief Rich Rashid, whose English was translated into Mandarin.

Microsoft is not alone in its effort to offer real-time translation. Japanese wireless carrier NTT Docomo has offered a Japanese-to-English real-time voice translator since 2011. Google has also been working on its own effort to translate voice chats, and already offers a feature for text on its own translation service. The big difference in this case is the sheer scale of Skype, which Microsoft says gets more than 300 million users connected each month, who spend more than 2 billion minutes talking each day.

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