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Erika Martinez, a producer at Microsoft Studios who is hard of hearing, and is using a screen with captions in a conference room. (Microsoft Photo)

The next PowerPoint presentation you see may have live captions or subtitles, as Microsoft rolls out a real-time voice translation feature to millions of subscribers. Think of it as an AI-powered Babel fish for the conference room.

Live captions and subtitles aren’t new to PowerPoint, but soon millions more will be able to use it. Microsoft debuted the feature in 2017 as an add-in and will offer it to Office 365 subscribers starting in late January 2019.

Here’s what the capability does:

  • Presentations given in 12 spoken languages can be captioned or subtitled in over 60 languages in real time.
  • PowerPoint uses contextual clues to interpret names and terms more accurately.
  • Users can change where captions show up and what they look like.

Microsoft did not provide details on the accuracy of the service, saying that it ranges based on audio quality, acoustics and accents.

Most of the big tech companies — including Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple and Baidu — have some kind of live captioning or translation capability. In October, Google unveiled a captioning feature for the presentation app Slides, and the company’s Translate app supports visual translation through a smartphone.

In addition to helping multilingual teams, Microsoft said that it wanted to make the captioning feature more widely available for deaf and hard of hearing workers. Today’s announcement coincides with the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

Microsoft partnered with the Rochester Institute of Technology, home to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, to pilot the automatic captioning program. Around 90 percent of the accessibility team at Microsoft has a disability, said Malavika Rewari, senior product marketing manager at Microsoft.

Only an estimated 52% of people who are deaf or hard of hearing have a job, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Technology that makes communication more accessible can help, but it’s not a silver bullet.

“It’s not like tech is the solution. Tech is offering more options, but there’s a culture change element to it,” Rewari said.

Deaf and hard of hearing employees have been capable of working in modern workplaces with free and widely available text-based tools for many years, said Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf. “The main hurdle is actually discrimination, not the lack of technology for common tasks,” he said.

Microsoft said that it has added 30 accessibility features to Office 365 in the past three years. In May 2018, Microsoft launched a $25 million, five-year program to fund the development of AI-based tools for people with disabilities. The initiative is one of Microsoft’s three “AI for Good” programs; the other two are focused on environmental and humanitarian causes.

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