Google's mission to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible faces a few barriers, most notably the language barrier. But the company's ongoing investment in translation technology is making it easier to bypass linguistic walls.
On Wednesday, Google updated its Translate app for Android devices with a series interface improvements. Most of these are nice but not especially noteworthy: better dropdown box design, an improved input box, and cleaner icons and layout. But one is significant.
Discussed back in December, 2009, and demonstrated as a prototype last fall, Conversation Mode has arrived. Conversation Mode is a user interface for mobile devices designed to facilitate a real-time conversation between two people speaking different languages.
While Google Translate for Android previously could be used to do this, the app's design was optimized to provide translations for single words or phrases, and to speak the translations in a subset of supported languages. It wasn't well-suited for real-time, back-and-forth translation because too much user input was required to submit each word or phrase.
"In Conversation Mode, simply press the microphone for your language and start speaking," explains Google product manager Awaneesh Verma in a blog post. "Google Translate will translate your speech and read the translation out loud. Your conversation partner can then respond in [his or her] language, and you'll hear the translation spoken back to you."
There are some limitations. The current version supports only English-Spanish translation in Conversation Mode. And rapid speech or a regional accent may be misinterpreted by Google's systems. But these are problems Google is working to overcome.
Presently, Google Translate supports 53 languages and voice input for 15 languages.
A true universal translator will remain the stuff of science fiction for years to come, but Google is offering the next best thing here and now.