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Microsoft's Skype "Star Trek" Language Translator Takes on Tower of Babel

Microsoft will demo a Skype feature that allows people that don't speak the same language to converse.

Ina Fried

Remember the universal translator on Star Trek? The gadget that let Kirk and Spock talk to aliens?

Microsoft will demonstrate onstage at the inaugural Code Conference on Tuesday a version of Skype that will accomplish much of the same — real-time language translation — without a new device.

Although the Redmond software giant’s real-time language translation tool was demonstrated a few years ago as a concept, it is finally scheduled to reach beta stage in an update of Skype some time later this year.

Microsoft will start with a handful of languages and will only be available for the Windows version of Skype, though Microsoft hopes to add more languages quickly, as well as support for the many types of computers and mobile devices that Skype customers use.

Both it and rival Google have had smaller-scale translation features. Google, for example, has the ability within its mobile apps to do speech-to-speech translation for a number of languages, though not for an entire conversation.

Microsoft, meanwhile, featured a service much like the Skype translator as part of a concept video several years back put together by the Office unit. Microsoft Research founder Rick Rashid gave a speech two years ago in which Microsoft’s machines translated his English into Chinese as he spoke.

“Every piece of technology was there, but it’s never been put together,” Microsoft VP Gurdeep Singh Pall told Re/code.

In the demo Tuesday, Singh Pall spoke with another Microsoft employee, Diana Heinrichs, who spoke German. The two discussed Singh Pall’s plans to move to London to join the Skype team.

“London is so international, you are going to love it,” Heinrichs said in German, which a female voice translated into English. “The Indian food is great.”

Pall said Microsoft chose to let each person finish speaking so that people could hear each other talk before hearing the translation.

One of the key things that Microsoft is still working out is how to use the massive amount of conversations taking place on Skype to make the translations better. Being able to use the real language that people speak would help the translation engine get significantly better, but also raises big potential privacy issues.

“We are working through that,” he said.

Pall noted that Skype handles more than three quarters of a trillion minutes of conversations annually. Even if a tiny fraction of people were willing to let Skype use their conversations, it would get more data than it needs or could even possibly process.

The Skype feature represents what Microsoft hopes is a turning point in the company’s efforts to make sure that its technological know-how doesn’t remain trapped in its labs.

For years, Microsoft has had trouble making its lab innovations translate into commercial success. Pall said the key is getting the technology out of the labs and into products.

“There’s a lot of ‘moonshot’ going on in our world,” Singh Pall said. “You’ve got to make it land.”

As for the Skype translator, Singh Pall said the goal is to get it out there with whichever languages it can do well and go from there. For sure, it won’t initially work with one language that Bing Translate supported — Star Trek’s Klingon.

“We can get to it later,” Singh Pall said.

This article originally appeared on

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