Google Previews Star Trek-Like Translator for Android

Star Trek popularized the idea of the universal translator that allowed people from different planets to "hear" each other in their own language thanks to advanced translation technology. That the writers even bothered to explain why beings from other different planets could communicate was something of a breakthrough, because many science fiction shows just had all the characters speaking English without any explanation as to how.

But will it always be just science fiction? Apparently developers at Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) don't think so. Today Google released an experimental feature called Conversation Mode for Android devices, a new interface within Google Translate that's designed to let users communicate fluidly with a nearby person in another language. Today's alpha release of Conversation Mode offers translation between English and Spanish using an Android device.

From within Conversation Mode, you can press the microphone to select their language and start speaking. Google Translate then translates that speech and reads the translation out loud. The second speaker can then respond in his or her language and be heard ( i.e. in this case, say Spanish back to English).

"Because this technology is still in alpha, factors like regional accents, background noise or rapid speech may make it difficult to understand what you're saying. Even with these caveats, we're excited about the future promise of this technology to be able to help people connect across languages," said Awaneesh Verma, a Google product manager, in a blog post.

Analyst Ben Bajarin says he plans to use Google Translate and Conversation Mode on an upcoming trip to Spain.

"Google Translate for Android is a free service and I can see it being especially useful to travelers," Bajarin, director of the Consumer Technology Practice at Creative Strategies, told InternetNews.com. "From Google's perspective, this is another example of the things they do to get more people using their services and make them sticky. If you're not traveling in another country, I'm not sure how much value there is, but it's something Google has that Apple doesn't."

Google also announced that it has released several updates to Translate for Android designed to make it easier. Improvements include better dropdown boxes to help select the languages you want to translate from and into, an improved input box and cleaner icons and layout.

The search giant previewed Conversation Mode at the IFA consumer electronics conference in Germany last September. Google's director of mobile products Hugo Barra demoed, the software translating a brief discussion between a German and English speaker. The demo, a made up conversation between an English speaker and a German shoe salesperson, hit a slight hitch when the app interpreted the German for "What color?" as "What cable?" but got it right on the third try and the demo as a whole drew big applause.

Following the demo, Google CEO Eric Schmidt told the audience: "This really is history, because for 50 years people have talked about being able to do what you just demoed."

David Needle is the West Coast bureau chief at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.


Android, android apps, Google Translate, smart phone, mobile application