At CES in Las Vegas today, Canadian startup Ortsbo debuted its Live & Global platform, which uses proprietary technology and close-captioning to translate video in 53 languages—in real time. Translation options range from Spanish and Chinese to Maltese and Yiddish. And there's even a rock star connection: Gene Simmons of Kiss is a business partner and spokesperson for the firm.
Internet audiences can watch closed-caption translation in real time of Variety magazine's ongoing Entertainment Summit. Variety and Ortsbo have signed a partnership agreement. Ortsbo president David Lucatch stressed the product's potential for corporate meetings at CES, saying that "regardless of the language you speak, today you speak your client's language."
In a real-time demo by a Fast Company reporter using Google Chrome on a Windows 7 PC, the closed captioning system performed admirably. After an initial crash, Ortsbo's software provided fairly accurate translations into French and Spanish, along with somewhat more error-ridden translations into Arabic and Hebrew. However, the translations didn't appear to be any clunkier than major competitors such as Google Translate.
Ortsbo has a history of holding publicity stunts to raise awareness of the company's products. Steve Nash and several other basketball players took part in an online multilingual press conference with Len Berman for Ortsbo this past year; Simmons also participated in an online chat with fans in 92 countries using the company's products.
The main purpose of the real-time closed-caption product seems to be for corporate events and international consumer engagement. Ortsbo recently signed an agreement with IndyCar for translation of press conferences and custom social media events. But the big commercial ramifications for this type of product lie in the exponentially expanding world of Internet video. Google's YouTube (which, of course, has easy access to Google Translate) is likely out of reach but there are hundreds of other Internet video sites with deep pockets and overseas consumer reach. Ortsbo would have to be foolish not to reach out to them. Then there's the issue of what will happen when Skype introduces instant translation. It is a deeply lucrative field despite the potential headaches for both coders and linguists.
Instant translation is like something out of Star Trek. The Defense Department has been a pioneer in the field; military contractors Voxtec and IraqComm have both produced products that allow troops, NGO employees, and DynCorp/Blackwater types to communicate on the fly. In addition to Google Translate, the wildly popular Word Lens smartphone app allows users to instantly translate French- and Spanish-language signage. Live & Global is only the latest product released by Ortsbo; the firm makes the bulk of their sales from a suite of popular desktop- and smartphone-based instant translation packages.
Translation is a big deal precisely because of the global nature of the Internet. Even though English is the Internet's lingua franca, fluency and comprehension levels vary wildly. Real-time translation means aspiring YouTube stars can gain non-anglophone fans in Brazil and Indonesia. Real-time translation means that small firms can hold instant Skype chats with investors abroad. As the Internet continues to mature and confluence between desktop and mobile devices continues, more and more firms will pop up offering products similar to Ortsbo's.
However, any translation service is ultimately only as good as the translation it offers. Due to the amazingly complicated issues surrounding real-time translation, quality varies. Ortsbo uses a proprietary method and has not publicly disclosed many details surrounding it (although they recently invested in voice translation outfit Lexifone). Google recently put a chain link fence around the Google Translate API; website developers now have to pay to integrate Google Translate into their products. In November, Ortsbo parent company Intertainment made a controversial public statement that they would take legal action against individuals making negative blog or web forum posts about their products. Meanwhile, Google has steadily been transforming Google Translate into a stand-alone, app-centered product.
[Image: Flickr user Carol Beatriz]
Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that Simmons announced his involvement with Ortsbo at the 2012 CES. Simmons has been involved with Ortsbo since 2011.