Microsoft has unveiled a new feature for Skype that's almost straight out of Star Trek's science fiction world — an app that translates conversations between speakers of different languages in real time.
"It's going to make sure you can communicate to anybody without language barriers," said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella while introducing the new feature at the Code Conference in San Francisco.
"In fact, it's the most human of things."
The feature will be available as a Windows 8 beta app before the end of this year, Microsoft's Gurdeep Pall, corporate vice-president of Skype and Lync, wrote on the Microsoft Official Blog.
At the conference, Pall showed off the new feature during a Skype video call. He spoke to Microsoft colleague Diane Heinrichs in slightly Indian-accented English, and she responded in German.
After each of Pall's sentences, he paused, and a computerized male voice repeated the sentence in German as written subtitles appeared on the screen. A computerized female voice repeated each of Heinrich's sentences in English.
Mostly, the translation seemed to go well, except for a small glitch as the system translated the second reason Heinrichs was coming to the U.S.: "I take the opportunity to see her fiancé my." That drew some laughs from the audience.
"As you saw from my conversation with Diana, it is early days for this technology, but the Star Trek vision for a Universal Translator isn’t a galaxy away, and its potential is every bit as exciting as those Star Trek examples," Pall wrote in a post on the Official Microsoft Blog.
"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."
Nadella said Microsoft's Machine Translation group has been working on the problem since the group was formed 15 years ago. Their work combines speech recognition, machine translation and speech synthesis.
Nadella said the team noticed that each time the system learns a new language, it gets better at the language it already knows.
"Quite frankly, none of us know exactly why," he said. "It's magical."