A new PowerPoint feature is straight out of 'Star Trek'

Microsoft translator powerpointMatt Weinberger/Business InsiderPowerPoint Translator in action. Speak in English, and it gets subtitled in Spanish on your screen, and German on the phone.

Microsoft’s PowerPoint will soon get a feature straight out of “Star Trek.”

Speakers using the presentation application will soon be able to have it translate what they’re saying in real time for foreign language speakers. The translations will come in the form of subtitles on their presentations and will work whether their slideshows are being presented to a live audience or to an online meeting.

The team behind the new feature was inspired by Captain Kirk and company, said Olivier Fontana, director of product strategy and marketing for Microsoft’s Translator technology. The team even toyed around with making a “Star Trek”-style wearable translation device before deciding that the app was much more practical, he said.

“We’re a bunch of geeks,” Fontana said. “We love the idea of the Universal Translator from ‘Star Trek.'”

Microsoft will be adding the new translation feature later this year as a free upgrade to PowerPoint for the Office 365 productivity suite. Following the update, you’ll be able to select the language you’ll be speaking while giving an online presentation, and attendees will be able to see subtitles in their own language.

In a demo given by Fontana, the feature totally worked. While he spoke out loud in English, his words were automatically subtitled in Spanish on his laptop screen. On my phone, they showed up in German.

The way it works is pretty straightforward, at least on a PC. If you’re viewing the PowerPoint presentation on your computer, all you’ll have to do is select your preferred language, and you’ll see the subtitles.

On a smartphone, it’s slightly more complicated. You’ll need to open the Microsoft Translator app and either enter a meeting-specific code or take a picture of a QR barcode to join.

Speakers can have the system scan their presentations ahead of time to make sure the translation system doesn’t get tripped up on uncommon scientific terms (“endothermic”) or acronyms (“CRISPR“).

The feature does have a few limitations, most notably in the number of languages it can translate. Microsoft Translator can only understand 10 spoken languages, among them English, Spanish, French, Italian, and Japanese. It can, however, translate those languages into and display subtitles in 60 different languages, including Klingon. (Fontana did say they were geeks).

The limited number of spoken languages Translator understands is a side-effect of the process Microsoft uses to train the artificial intelligence underpinning its translations, Fontana said. It typically takes 3 to 4 months to get a new spoken language up and running with Translator, but sometimes it can take a lot longer. It took Translator a year and a half to incorporate Japanese, thanks to the complexity of the language, he said. There are more languages to come, but it will take time and effort to make that a reality.

“Our goal is to break the language barrier,” Fontana said.

The foundation for the new feature in PowerPoint was laid in December, when the Translator app got an upgrade that allowed it to translate conversations among up to 100 people. As they spoke in person or online, the app would automatically subtitle everyone’s speech in their own language.

Microsoft has found that Translator has a surprising extra use, Fontana said. Schools testing out the new PowerPoint Translator have found that the automatic subtitling is really useful for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. By setting Translator to subtitle lectures made in English with English text, they were basically able to turn it into a closed-captioning system, he said.

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