Microsoft has demonstrated a real-time Skype Translator tool that allows users to host video calls in different languages. A working beta of the tool is expected to be made available for Windows 8 before the end of the year.
Microsoft showed off the software at the Re/Code conference in the US on Tuesday evening. Chief executive Satya Nadella was on stage to introduce the technology, explaining that it was the product of 15 years' research.
"Microsoft Research 15 years ago started our machine translation group, and has been working on speech recognition, machine translation and speech synthesis," he said.
"It is going to make sure you can communicate with anybody without language barriers."
Nadella explained that during this work the capabilities of machine translation and speech have delivered some surprising results.
"The one fascinating feature of this is something called transfer learning. What happens is you teach it English and it learns English. Then you teach it Mandarin, and it learns Mandarin, but it becomes better at English," he said.
"Then you teach it Spanish, and it gets good at Spanish but gets great at both Mandarin and English. Quite frankly none of us know exactly why. It's magic."
Nadella was joined on stage by Gurdeep Pall, corporate vice president of Skype and Lync at Microsoft, who demonstrated the tool in use between himself and a colleague talking in fluent German (video embedded below).
Skype was able instantly and fairly accurately to read out the message in English from German or vice versa, and display a text translation of the message too.
The cultural and business benefits of such a tool are immediately obvious and no doubt Microsoft will hope that it has a substantial head start as it could prove a major differentiator as video calling becomes more commonplace.
Writing in a blog post after the demonstration Pall said the success of the demo was proof that Microsoft's commitment to research in this space was paying off.
"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," he said.
More information on the progress made by the Microsoft Research team over the past decade and a half on speech translation and voice recognition was provided on a detailed blog that offers insights into some of the major breakthroughs.
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