Microsoft's Realtime Translator We Assumed We'd Have By Now

Today in Redmond, Microsoft Research demoed the Translating Telephone. It does exactly what it says it does, and as you can see - well, hear - from this video, it was awesome.

Imagine a VOIP system that caches all your calls, converting them to searchable, storable, everlasting text. That's already pretty amazing - especially if you already jump through hoops recording interviews and conference calls. But then imagine this: It can translate whatever you say into some other language. In real time.

As you will notice in the video, the research team built the proof-of-concept system to work in English and German, the native languages of Kit and Frank, the two developers on the team. As you also might have picked up, it has the same occasional clumsiness of an internet-based text translator. This is because it's using the same technology that Bing's translator uses.

What was funny for the researchers to discover was how their own spoken language differed from their written one. For extra monitoring of translation quality, they set up their test system so that it would re-translate the translated speech, so English-to-German-to-English. I myself envisioned a great moment in modern poetry, a la Jimmy James' Super Karate Monkey Death Car, but as you can see, when chit-chat becomes fast and casual, it's usually more like garbage in/garbage out:

What's great is that a software tool like this could be stuck into so many different situations, as a live translation feature for video chat, as a conference-call option, or - in the least likely but sweetest scenario - as a feature on a Microsoft-branded Google Talk competitor that ran on Windows phones. Alas, that is probably not gonna happen. [Microsoft Research - no specific project page]

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