Is There Much Of A Market For A Universal Translator?

Microsoft has an impressive new universal translator demonstration – Chief Research Officer Rick Rashid shows a real time translation of English (voice) to Chinese (voice, via text), with the interesting twist that the translated language is spoken in his own voice.

Rashid writes about it here, and there’s a video. More here.

This is a product that just naturally resonates with people. We’ve all seen Star Trek’s universal translator, and translating devices are common in science fiction. It’s a cool feeling to imagine speaking with someone who doesn’t share your language.

Clearly we’re only several years away from having exactly such a service. There are apps out there now claiming to do this (I haven’t tested this one or any others). A couple of years ago Google was showing off and talking about a similar product.

And two and a half years ago I saw a demo of a different Microsoft product that did the same thing, although the conversation was English/German.

Rashid’s product certainly seems better than the previous Microsoft translating telephone thing, but none of these products makes me want to reach out to my foreign language friends and have a conversation.

Why? Well, mostly because I don’t have any foreign language friends unless they speak English. I only speak English. If someone doesn’t speak English already there’s a very small chance I’m friends with them.

And that’s the problem. Do any of us have friends where we don’t speak a common language already? And if this isn’t really for friends and family, it’s for business and for tourism.

A universal translator that’s even better than the one Microsoft just showed off probably isn’t good enough for business negotiations. That requires precise language, and the ability to detect tone and language nuance in negotiations.

Tourism is another story. Instead of Paris waiters sneering at my botched French I can have them sneer at my phone speaking botched French instead. There’s a market for this for travelers.

But how big is that market? Every couple of years we all get surprised again by new and better universal translation software, but Microsoft, Google and others haven’t actually productized it. There may be a reason for that.

Even so, I love research that isn’t really about anything other than fun. The best stuff always comes out of those efforts.

As an aside, I can swear fluently in several languages.