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This screenshot shows the original-language text on the sender’s phone (left) and the received message along with its automatic translation on the recipient’s phone. (Microsoft Research screen grab)

The roughly 3,000 leaders from science, economics, politics and business who attended the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, this month may have understood each other a little better, thanks to technology from Microsoft and Layer, a San Francisco-based startup in which Microsoft has invested.

The World Economic Forum’s organizers included Layer’s customizable messaging app along as part of the scheduling and other materials available for download to each participant. When participants used the app to send a text message, they found that if an incoming message was in a different language than their phone was set to, the app automatically offered an instant, optional in-line translation. So, for example, Chinese speakers would tap on a message to see a translation into Chinese of a message sent in English.

This (silent) video shows how it worked.

“I heard people were very impressed with the translations,” said Ron Palmeri, Layer’s CEO, in an interview. “No one complained it was inaccurate. A big part of our mission is to give people the ability to communicate as easily as they would with their own family.”

Layer could provide the translation service because it had linked its app to the Microsoft Translator Text API, a linkage that took a mere four hours to implement, Palmeri said. Behind Microsoft’s API lies a cloud-based machine-translation service based on deep neural networks. Available since early 2007, it translates among 60 languages.

“English is fairly predominant at Davos, but the idea was that even if someone spoke English, having a high-quality translation is a useful thing,” Palmeri said. “Without it, everyone has to do their own translation.” It can be helpful to see the original and the translation side by side, he added.

Romain Dorange-Pattoret, the World Economic Forum’s product-management lead, said in a release that connecting leaders from 100 different countries has always been a challenge, and that the translations helped attendees connect, communicate and schedule meetings much more easily.

The app worked only with typed text messages, not those that were spoken. “Next time we’ll include the voice feature,” he said. That will make the translation process even more complex, requiring accurate speech recognition. But again, that service will be provided simply by linking to the API.

Layer’s product isn’t a standalone messaging service like iMessage or Facebook Messenger. It’s delivered as part of a larger product, for example making up part of Nordstrom’s personal-shopping app.

Founded in September 2013, Layer has raised more than $20 million and has 35 employees. Palmeri declined to say how much Microsoft Ventures has invested in the company.  Microsoft Ventures launched in May of 2016 and has announced 20 investments so far.

Microsoft has been working on machine translation for several years now. In 2014 it debuted translation services for its Skype video-conferencing service. For both iOS and Android phones, it offers both online translation services and offline translation of multiple languages through downloadable language packs. And in December it introduced a new feature for its Translator mobile and web app and API, allowing several people on smartphones to have conversations in multiple languages.

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