March 12, 2012, 2:19 PM — Every fan of science fiction movies – even Star Wars – has moments of emotional conflict over how badly even the best SF movies mangle the laws of physics, or even basic reality.
Even the original Star Trek – among the more physical-law-abiding TV series – had the occasional obvious gaffe.
[Even during the '60s, how many people really believed that humanity would be wise enough to miss the opportunity for nuclear holocaust to become a self-consciously ethical, scientifically explorers of deep space whose judgment remained poor enough to wear that much velour?]
Of the very many SF movie tropes that demonstrate reality and violate it at the same time ("space fighters" can't swoop or make cool ray-gun noises audible through a vacuum), the hardest to exterminate is the universal translator. Earth audiences refuse to read subtitles, but only speak Earth languages (except a few self-taught speakers of Klingon, Elvish and Fanboid).
So Dr. Who's TARDIS magically projects language translation through time, space and all the sound stages of the BBC.
Star Trek lets its computer do the work, but waits a decent interval for it to learn the language of a new species.
Microsoft, which has been building speech-recognition and automatic translators for a couple of decades, demonstrated last week the result of its effort to avoid both TARDIS- and mainframish disembodied "Computer"-dependent translation by designing voice-recognizing translators to run on virtually any handy electronics.
Microsoft Research showed off the Microsoft Translating Telephone, its latest high water mark at last week's TechFest 2012 – a showcase for the bleedingest-edge of the future of Microsoft feature glut.
The technology is a lot better, a lot lighter and a lot faster than the days it ran only on the most powerful computer clusters and even its own developers called speech-to-text the "wrecked a nice beach" technology because it couldn't reliable recognize speech.
The big step forward is a text-to-speech apps able to run on smartphones, translate spoken words into many different languages and keep the speaker's own voice and intonation largely intact while doing it.