Google Conversation Mode
Will 2011 be the year of the universal translator?

Hundreds of companies are working to hammer down the language barrier, but Google’s about to bring in a wrecking ball. For the past year, the giant amongst search engines has been touting a new feature they will be bringing to their smart phones – it’s called ‘Conversation Mode’. Combining the high speed text translations of Google Translate and the text to speech/speech to text skills of Google Voice Actions, Conversation Mode allows users to speak in one language and have their phone speak in another. Google hasn’t announced any firm launch dates (it’s been ‘months away’ for months now) but they demonstrated the technology during IFA 2010 in September to great effect. You can watch the demo in the video clip below. We’ve seen smart phone based applications like this before, but not with the power or versatility of Google Translate behind them. For those who are keeping track, GT added its 57th language this year. Conversation Mode still has its bugs to work out, but it looks like a nearly universal translator could be coming to your phone in 2011.


This video clip is from Eric Schmidt’s hour-long keynote address at IFA 2010 in September. You can watch the entire presentation here.

We’ve been talking about universal translators a lot recently because there have been so many wonderful demonstrations of the technology in the past 18 months. Smart phone applications capable of translating a single language to English have been available for a while, with great examples for Spanish and Arabic appearing in late 2009. (Prototype software, of course, has been around for much longer.) In those same 18 months we’ve also seen advancements in text to speech/speech to text programs, and the number of applications using that capability continues to increase. I think it’s clear that we’re approaching a perfect storm moment in the development of universal translators. We have the necessary pieces to start cobbling a UT together, and in my mind that’s what Conversation Mode really is. Glue Voice Actions to Google Translate and you get a system that can handle 50+ languages with lag times of just a few seconds. And there’s every reason to believe that Conversation Mode will be free. How incredible is that?

Of course, not everything about a Google created voice translator will be perfect. Google Translate is definitely a cloud-based service, meaning that Conversation Mode will likely require connectivity to work. Not very useful if you’re in the middle of nowhere and can’t get a signal. Also, as you could clearly see in the video above, the Conversation Mode demo took three attempts to properly translate “color”. The first generation of this service is likely to require some major amounts of patience.

Yet one of the most promising things about Conversation Mode is that it will get better with time. Possibly much better. Google Translate learns how to convert between languages by examining millions of documents and developing rules for translation that constantly evolve. Because it is cloud-based, you can access improvements in Google Translate almost as soon as they are made. Conversation Mode (and its successors) won’t just be a great semi-universal translator, it will be a tool that changes as the languages of the world change. A UT not just for today, but for the future in perpetuity. In five years I expect I will be able to travel around the world and never need a translator besides my phone. In ten I think the language barrier will be so crumbled that we will take it for granted that we are crossing over it many times each day. It’s going to be amazing.


[sources: Google at IFA (video), The Times]