In 2021, Facebook famously changed its name to Meta to reflect its focus on building the future of the metaverse. In announcing this change, CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained:
“Today we are seen as a social media company, but in our DNA we are a company that builds technology to connect people, and the metaverse is the next frontier, just like social networking was when we got started.” Stating further, “We believe the metaverse will be the successor to the mobile internet.”
As part of their investment, Meta is working on artificial intelligence for metaverse translation. While they admit the technology is still a ways off, it demonstrates that language and translation will be an integral part of the metaverse. What does that mean for the translation industry?
The term metaverse was coined by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash. In the book, the metaverse is a 3D, virtual reality environment that people access using a personal terminal (something we might recognize today as a VR headset). Users are represented in the metaverse by avatars and they experience their surroundings from a first-person point of view.
Video games such as Second Life, Minecraft, and Fortnite are the closest we have to a metaverse environment today. However, companies like Meta are banking on the metaverse going far beyond mere games. They imagine, for example, replacing Zoom meetings with virtual conference rooms and at-home learning with virtual classrooms. The metaverse is projected to have its own economy with digital currency, goods, and services. It’s a blending of technologies such as video conferencing, virtual reality, augmented reality, live streaming, cryptocurrency, and, yes, gaming.
If the metaverse is to connect people regardless of their physical location, it follows that it will also need to overcome language barriers. As such, translation will be an integral part of its development.
Exactly how metaverse translation will happen is yet to be determined. Maybe it will appear as floating subtitles, like a virtual reality version of Skype Translator. Or perhaps, virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri will help translate conversations between avatars. These existing solutions, however, seem a bit awkward for a fully immersive environment like the metaverse.
Meanwhile, Meta is promising instantaneous speech-to-speech translation, like something out of Star Trek. They claim their technology will even be able to translate languages that aren’t spoken by a lot of people. A worthy goal, but one that is well beyond current machine translation capabilities.
Whatever form metaverse translation ultimately takes, however, it’s going to have to account for scenarios as varied as those we have in everyday life, from rapid chatroom-like social interactions to live events to high-stakes negotiations between corporations and even governments.
While machine translation has come a long way in recent years, it’s nowhere near the universal translator envisioned by Meta. And although the company is promising such technology is only a few short years away, similar promises have been made and broken since the Georgetown-IBM project in the 1950s.
Human language is incredibly complex. Each language has its own grammatical rules, semantics, syntax, and cultural influence. As advanced as modern neural machine translation is, it simply cannot learn all that. When it comes to translations that require any sensitivity, nuance, or creativity, human translation will always be the gold standard.
What machine translation can offer is speed and scale. If the metaverse is to host countless conversations at any given time, only machine translation has the potential to be available to everyone all at once. Therefore, it’s likely that metaverse translation will, at least for the foreseeable future, involve both human and machine translators.
Since the metaverse is still more of a vision than a reality, there are lots of opportunities for the translation industry to participate in its development.
Many people believe that cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin will be vital to the economy of the metaverse. Making this emerging technology accessible to as many people as possible requires localization of the dApps (decentralized apps) necessary to use it.
Already, virtual meeting spaces such as Zoom are enabling conferences and webinars to provide real-time, human translation of live events. This allows attendees to listen in their own language by way of a human interpreter. Such technology will probably only be expanded in the metaverse.
The gaming industry is currently leading the way in developing metaverse experiences. As such, game localization will play a vital role in ensuring everyone feels comfortable and welcome in the metaverse.
Already, people are buying and selling so-called “NFTs” to represent assets in the digital world. These NFTs can be anything from fashion accessories for your avatar to virtual real estate. This points to a thriving economy in the metaverse; and where there is commerce, there is a need for retail and marketing translation.
Some people argue that rather than being a full virtual reality, the metaverse will be more of augmented reality (AR). AR allows people to use their phone or a Google Glasses-type device to see and interact with virtual elements in the real world. Perhaps the most famous AR example is the game Pokemon Go in which users chase and capture digital creatures hidden in real-world environments.
AR could have a huge impact on the travel industry. Imagine tourists reading signs, menus, and documents in their native language and how much easier that would make it to navigate unfamiliar surroundings.
Ultimately, no one is quite sure yet what the metaverse will be or how it will work. The technology is still in its infancy like the Internet was in the 1990s. But what’s clear is that the metaverse will be an international, multilingual space. If people are to connect meaningfully in new and innovative ways, there will be a significant need for translation services in the metaverse.