Skype Translator Emerges in Preview Version

Microsoft-owned Skype yesterday released a preview version of Skype Translator, its speech-recognition-driven communications software that can translate conversations in real time.

Skype launched a private beta trial version of Translator last month. The preview version is now available to anyone.

Skype Translator, which reportedly has been in the works for more than a decade, currently only offers spoken translations in English and Spanish, but instant messaging translations are available in more than 40 languages to Skype customers who have signed-up via the Skype Translator sign-up page and are using Windows 8.1 on desktop computers or mobile devices.

Microsoft acquired Skype, a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) provider, in May 2011 for $8.5 billion. It was Microsoft's biggest purchase ever, and perhaps the riskiest, according to many analysts.

But Gurdeep Pall, corporate vice president of Skype, says the investment is finally starting to pay off for Microsoft.

"Skype Translator is a great example of the benefit of Microsoft’s investment in research," he wrote in a blog post yesterday.  "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."

According to Pall, Skype Translator also relies on machine learning that will allow it to get better the more it's used.

Bill Meisel, president of TMA Associates and executive director of the Applied Voice Input/Output Society (AVIOS), agrees. "Because Microsoft uses a statistical approach to speech recognition and translation, the system can learn from experience and should continually get better as it has more data to analyze," he says.

But that has its limitations. "It should be excellent for typical consumer conversations when the participants are talking about subjects that others have talked about. It may be more questionable when the topics are specialized, where there may have been few relevant examples for the machine learning to process," Meisel warns.

Skype Translator, Pall added, "will open up endless possibilities for people around the world to connect, communicate, and collaborate" without being hindered by language. The translations show up right in the chat window as subtitled text.

In the blog post, Pall also maintains that this is just the beginning of what Microsoft wants to do with the technology.

"Our long-term goal for speech translation is to translate as many languages as possible on as many platforms as possible and deliver the best Skype Translator experience on each platform for our more than 300 million connected users," he wrote.

Meisel would like to see a little more. "A nice feature might be a translation of the translation so that one could at least get a feeling if it was accurate" he says. "On the other hand, since the conversation is interactive, the other participant can always say, in effect, 'huh?'"

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