Google to offer real-time voice translation on smartphones

Google is planning to make up lost ground on Microsoft’s Skype by automatically detecting the language spoken by foreigners and translating their speech. Skype Translator was one of the most jaw dropping tech announcements of 2014. Still in limited preview, the service provides real-time translation between spoken Spanish and English (and vice versa), allowing two people who don’t share a common language to hold a conversation.

Now, according to the New York Times, Google is planning to beef up its own Translate mobile app. A forthcoming update will automatically detect if someone is speaking one of a few common languages and turn their speech into text. Automatic spoken language detection is already part of the Google Translate desktop app, although it’s not clear from the report whether this will eventually be built into Google Hangouts to provide a genuine alternative to Skype Translator.

The evolution of both services signifies something of a tipping point in natural language processing, potentially breaking down the biggest barrier in human communications. Google has a particularly strong reason to keep developing the technology. Real-time translation could become a killer application for its Google Glass headsets, potentially allowing wearers to receive a real-time audio and text translation of what a foreign language speaker in the same room is saying.

Both companies have worked hard on developing translation services in recent years. The Google Chrome browser automatically detects when a website isn’t written in the user’s native tongue and offers to translate the contents of the page. Although the results are often translated into pidgin English, the service is normally sufficient to get the gist. Google also offers mobile and desktop versions of the Translate app, which can translate text from dozens of different languages, including Welsh, Zulu and Swahili.

Microsoft’s Bing Translator also comes in mobile and desktop versions, and underpins the automatic translation services offered by Twitter and Facebook. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella revealed last year that machine learning greatly improves the accuracy of these translation services, as they begin to gain a greater understanding of human speech patterns and grammar.

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