Microsoft this morning announced a new feature for its Translator program that will let people use their smartphones to have conversations in several languages at the same time.
The update works with one-on-one conversations or in a situation where a multitude of languages are being used; for example, one person speaking English, another Spanish, and a third person Chinese. Microsoft is pitching the new tool as a great option for tour guides talking to people all over the world, to taxi drivers and hotels that get a lot of international guests.
“At the end of the day, our goal is breaking the language barrier,” Olivier Fontana, director of product strategy for Microsoft Translator, said in a blog post.
The service is available via the Microsoft Translator app, and it also has a dedicated website. After signing in, users pick their language and start a new conversation. That generates a code and QR code that others can scan to enter the conversation and then set their language.
Like a walkie-talkie, a speaker pushes a button to talk, and then a few seconds later a translation pops up on the participants’ devices in their chosen language. Microsoft said audible translation is available in some languages but didn’t specify which ones.
Microsoft says it is still working to improve its translation abilities.
“Is the quality perfect? No. Is the setup totally seamless? No. But really, once you get set up, you have a universal translator experience amongst multiple people talking in multiple languages,” Fontana said.
Breaking down communication barriers has been a big priority at Microsoft for years. Recently, the company has picked up a lot of momentum in that area. Last year, Microsoft built its real-time language translation tool directly into Skype for Windows PCs. Then this spring, Microsoft put out an update to Microsoft Translator that allows users to download entire languages for offline translations.
All of this is powered by what Microsoft characterized as a”deep neural network,” a form of machine learning. Microsoft has trained algorithms using translated documents to see how words and phrases are represented in different languages, improving the ability to translate in a conversational manner.