At the Re/code conference yesterday, Microsoft revealed a truly geeky concept that has potentially huge ramifications for business and consumers alike. Skype Translator, scheduled to release in beta sometime later this year for Windows 8.x, will be an add-on for Skype that provides real-time language translation services.
Many forget that this technology was first introduced by Microsoft at the Microsoft Research Asia’s 21st Century Computing event in Tianjin, China almost two years ago (November 2012). At the time, the technology was in its infantile stages and not ready for prime time due to the high percentage of errors in translation. Despite the presentation in 2012, Skype Translator technology goes back to the late 1970s when a group of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University made a significant breakthrough in speech recognition using a technique called hidden Markov modeling. Faster computers and better methods over the last 40 years have culminated in an increasingly solid technology. Now, Microsoft feels more comfortable about how the technology has advanced and is gearing up to release it to its 300 million Skype users.
Releasing first for Windows 8.X later this year (no exact date given), Microsoft intends to make the plug-in available for all popular platforms, eventually including iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. Microsoft didn't mention if the service would be offered for free or if it will be released as a paid service.
Skype Translator comes on the heels of the first Cortana beta release in Windows Phone 8.1, which enables Windows-powered smartphones to understand human speech and serve as an assistant to help users manage their life. Cortana is powered by Bing, so it's entirely possible (though not stated) that Skype Translator uses similar Bing-enabled technology.
Understandably, there's a lag time between the spoken word and the actual translation that causes each participant to pause briefly, but Microsoft believes the even the lag will improve very quickly.
As a TV, movie, and science fiction buff, it really has me excited to see childhood dreams like these coming so close to fruition. I've often wondered why Star Trek tech has taken so long to become reality, but like most technology, once the tipping point has been reached, the wildfire starts. Once Skype Translator reaches the masses, I fully expect it to become commonplace.