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How Skype is becoming like Star Trek

In the late 1990s, voice dictation company Lernout & Hauspie demonstrated a seemingly miraculous technology that translated someone's spoken words from his or her native language into the language of the listener -- in real time, over the phone. L&H flamed out a short time later as key company executives were indicted and convicted of an embezzlement scheme. And in the last 15 years, not a lot has happened in the real-time voice translation space to fill that void.

That's finally changing. Recently, Microsoft (MSFT) rolled out a version of Skype that's capable of doing exactly that: It can translate voice calls from one language to another, in real time, in both audio and text. It's a lot like Star Trek's Universal Translator.

Here's what the experience of using Skype Translator is like: After specifying the language of the person you're calling, anything you say in Skype is translated into that language more or less right away. There's a slight delay, but it's sufficiently brief that any reasonable person would still consider it a real-time experience. The person hears what you said spoken aloud in a synthesized voice and sees your words written in both English and the target language.

When they respond, it's the same deal: You hear their response in English and see their original foreign text along with an English translation.

When you think about it, this isn't especially revolutionary. Speech-to-text technology has been around a very long time now, and a slew of mobile apps attempt to translate text on the fly from one language to another. Skype Translator just marries those two things together.

But in hands-on testing, the marriage feels futuristic. Translation quality is decent, though at times it made bizarre and comical choices. At its best, it's clear Microsoft has made great strides in the ability to smartly translate idiomatic language in a way that's not nonsensical in everyday conversation because a literal translation would often be hilariously useless.

Right now, Skype Translator isn't quite ready for prime time. It's being rolled out slowly in a sort of public beta test, so if you want to try it out for yourself, you need to get on the waiting list by signing up on the Skype website. And the only available language pair so far is English-Spanish, so you'll need to know some Spanish-speaking people to put Skype Translator through its paces. Microsoft says more languages are coming soon.

And its beta colors show. It would sometimes randomly start reading my own speech back to me in Spanish, for example, instead of playing it on the other end.

The interface is also a bit confusing. It opens two different Skype windows and invites a bot (the one doing the translating) into the call. At times, the translated audio transcript appears by default front and center. At other times, you have to hunt for it or you simply can't find it at all.

On the plus side, Skype Translator is free, and both parties don't need to have it for the call to work. If you initiate a call with someone who isn't using Skype Translator, they'll get the translated conversation as well without upgrading.

Skype Translator finally looks to bring true real-time translation to business and personal communication, and it could be the start of a set of technologies that eradicate the language barrier.

Photo courtesy Microsoft

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