It’s not quite the Babelfish from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy yet, but Cisco has launched real-time translation in its Webex collaboration tool.
At its Webexone virtual event in December, Cisco announced that Webex would translate from English to 15 different languages at launch. It overachieved that goal, as the translator launches today with simultaneous translation from English into 108 languages.
Jeetu Patel, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco’s security and applications business, said that by later this year, Webex would be able to translate from any of 70 different languages into that same list of 108 languages. It’s a change Patel calls a fundamental shift in terms of global connectivity.
“It makes the whole world an equal playing field,” Patel said. “It means anyone can speak in any language and create tighter bonds with anyone else.”
Patel said Cisco would improve the performance of the machine learning-based translator performance over time. The new feature is part of what Patel describes as an investment of over $1 billion (U.S.) in AI-based technologies in recent years.
Since joining Cisco last year, Patel’s mantra has been that the company is looking to make virtual meetings via Webex “10 times better” than in-person meetings. In a briefing with industry press and analysts, Patel offered a look into what the company believes will make that “10x” vision a reality. In the present and near-term, that means feature innovations like the ability to record, transcribe into multiple languages, and share all or parts of conversations, functions Patel described as key in his efforts to “meet” his team virtually after joining Cisco in the midset of the pandemic. Other recent additions include the ability of Webex to recognize common gestures, such as thumbs up, thumbs down, and applause, and relay that feedback to speakers in real-time even when the gesturer is not visible to the speaker on-screen.
Patel said there are efforts to make sure everyone in a meeting has a chance to have their say without interruption in the medium term. He focused mainly on making sure more introverted attendees in the meeting get a chance to air their input without being bulldozed by more extroverted attendees. Such a “roundtable” feature would give each attendee a set amount of time to offer their input while all others on the call are muted, then move on to the next speaker at the end of the allotted time.
While some of these features, particularly the gestures, fall into the “fun during meetings” camp, Patel drew a sharp distinction between these additions and the more consumer-focused feature focus of popular competitors.
“These are the things you don’t focus on when you’re busy thinking about cat filters,” Patel said. “Things like features in a meeting are fun, yes, but it’s more about a mindset of making sure everyone’s voice is being heard.”
They’re also part of an ongoing effort to make the software easier for users. Patel said the company’s goal is to get to a “zero-click” interface and break down any remaining barriers for any user, regardless of location or technical savvy.
“I want to make it so my 82-year-old mother who barely speaks English can use this as well as me,” he said.
In the longer term, Patel said, the company will more fundamentally reshape the Webex experience, bringing in technology concepts like augmented and virtual reality, and maybe go in directions as yet unimagined.
“Hopefully, five years from now, we’re not looking at a series of boxes on the screen, and we’ve reimagined how you’re communicating,” he said.
That reimagining will also include more insights gleaned from the data Webex can gather about its users and usage pattern.
For example, Patel said the software should inform users if they’ve had many meetings but shown up late to all of them.
In a situation like that, Patel highlighted Cisco’s view on user privacy, specifying that such a report would be made available to the user directly, but not the user’s employer, management, or coworkers.
“We’ll shy away from features if they violate someone’s privacy,” Patel pledged.