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Videoconferencing company Zoom today announced that it acquired Kites GmbH (Karlsruhe Information Technology Solutions), a startup developer of AI-powered real-time language translation technologies. Terms of the deal weren’t made public. Zoom said that Kites’ team of 12 research scientists will remain in Karlsruhe, Germany, helping the Zoom’s engineering team build translation capabilities for Zoom users.
Kites is among Zoom’s first acquisitions following the company’s $1.75 billion-plus share sale earlier this year. In a filing in January with the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission, Zoom said it could use part of the capital for merger and acquisition activity. As of March, the company had $4.2 billion in cash, which CFO Kelly Stackelberg said in an interview with Yahoo Finance Live would be put toward “opportunities for acquisitions to augment our talent and our technology,” among other efforts.
In its first acquisition in May 2020, Zoom bought Keybase, a security startup focused on encrypted communications, for an undisclosed sum.
Kites was founded in 2015 by Alex Waibel and Sebastian Stüker, faculty members at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Waibel previously started the language technology group at Facebook, which became a part of the social network’s applied machine learning division. Waibel is also the founder of C-STAR, an international consortium for speech translation research, for which he served as chairman from 1998 to 2000.
Kites’ platform was originally designed as a tool to facilitate dialogue among international academic teams, but its focus was later broadened to become a general-purpose, AI-driven translation framework.
A number of third-party tools already allow Zoom users to engage in multilingual conversations. There’s Ligmo, which supports around 80 languages and 100 language pairs in real time. Another popular plugin, Wordly, can understand and translate between 16 different languages.
But Kites claims to leverage “state of the art” technology and predictive AI — built in-house and running on the cloud or on-premises — to deliver leading translation accuracy with low latency. Transcripts and translated text appear in real time, before speakers complete their sentences, and it self-corrects if it identifies a better interpretation after additional context.
Kites says that when it comes to recognition, its system has an error rate of about 5%, with about only one second of delay behind a person’s speech.
“Kites emerged with the mission of breaking down language barriers and making seamless cross-language interaction a reality of everyday life, and we have long admired Zoom for its ability to easily connect people across the world,” Waibel and Stüker said in a statement. “We know Zoom is the best partner for Kites to help advance our mission and we are excited to see what comes next under Zoom’s incredible innovation engine.”
Following the acquisition, Waibel will become a Zoom research fellow, a role in which he’ll advise Zoom’s machine translation R&D. As for Zoom, it will explore opening an R&D center in Germany, according to Velchamy Sankarlingam, Zoom president of product and engineering.
“We are continuously looking for new ways to deliver happiness to our users and improve meeting productivity, and machine translation solutions will be key in enhancing our platform for Zoom customers across the globe,” Sankarlingam said in a statement. “With our aligned missions to make collaboration frictionless — regardless of language, geographic location, or other barriers – we are confident Kites’ impressive team will fit right in with Zoom.”
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