“¿Puede ayudarme? Necesito encuentro el PATH station,” I said in really bad, broken Spanglish. So sad. At one time, I was actually fairly fluent, but trying to dust the cobwebs off my brain after 15+ years without practice was just too much. It was even worse when he answered me in rapid fire Spanish. I just looked at him helplessly, hoping I’d magically understand his directions to the New Jersey PATH station in Journal Square. But no, I ended up reducing this poor guy to grunts and arm flailing, trying to point me in the right direction.

If you’ve ever been there, lost in a foreign country or even just in an unfamiliar neighborhood, then you know this pain. Forget the cool, calm, collected you that years of cultivation produced. You have a headache, and you know full well that you’re spreading to some other poor sucker. And worse, you know you look like a total dipstick while doing it.

Man, this item sure would’ve come in handy that day.

Like a page out of a SciFi flick, Microsoft Research has developed a real universal spoken language translator. Think Star Trek, and the devices that Kirk and Spock made famous, the throat-strap that The Last Starfighter‘s Alex Rogan rocked, or Doctor Who‘s Tardis translator. As a culture, we’ve clearly been fascinated with these for decades. And now Microsoft is actually making headway on it.

The software translates speech into other languages, complete with accent and intonation intact. To do this, users have to invest about an hour of training. If you have a lisp or a lazy vowel, or you pronounce “Cool Whip” like Stewie Griffin (“Cool Hhwip“), the software will pick up your quirks. This results in a translation that still sounds like you, just in Spanish. Or Italian. Or Mandarin. Or… you get the idea. There are 26 languages supported by the Microsoft Speech Platform, so users can go on a hhwhirlwind global language tour.

It’s not quite there yet, but we’d love to see this become a commercial offering — maybe even have it folded into smartphone functionality, for go-anywhere utility. Say, doesn’t Microsoft already own a platform? Couldn’t you see Windows 8 or 9 rocking this natively? Well, why not? The company demoed a program a couple of years ago that translated phone calls, practically in real time. This would just be an evolution of that. And if the researchers can crack the need for hour-long training, things could get even more interesting: Picture you and a new friend speaking two different languages, but understanding each other perfectly, thanks to the device acting as translator in both directions.

For more check out the video, taken at TechFest 2012. (This part of the presentation begins around 12 minutes in.)

How could you see a universal translator come in handy? For world peace? Cross-cultural tolerance and understanding? Or would you just use it to prank folks on the other side of the world? Weigh in.

[via ExtremeTech, Gizmodo.uk, source Microsoft Research]

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