Travelers and tourists longing to communicate better with locals may be in luck very soon. Google's prototype language translator, Conversation Mode, uses Android phones to record spoken words and then play them back in a different language.
Conversation Mode combines the technology of Google Voice and Google Translate (which only works for text) to translate over fifty languages via a speech interface on a smartphone. While similar translation programs exist, most of them are text-based and those that do translate speech-to-speech only work for a limited number of languages. Some of the best competitors can claim around twenty languages, though we can probably expect that number to jump with programs like Conversation Mode coming into play. As the video demonstration below shows, this could change the way people travel. Imagine being able to visit any place in the world and communicate with the locals about topics much more complicated than where the bathroom is. That is, as long as you have enough battery... and a signal.
Like Google Translate, the program is designed to learn over time. As long as its continually fed more and more translations, Conversation Mode will presumably get better and better at its job. This might mean that more obscure languages and those less often translated by Google will take a little longer to fare as well as other languages in Conversation Mode. However, this is an application designed to improve over time, and it's not unreasonable to conjecture that in the future Conversation Mode will be able to handle nearly any speech it encounters. Another beautiful example of cloud-based computing at work.
This may not be as easy as putting a Babel Fish in your ear, but it's far easier than scrambling through a pocket dictionary and taking minutes to ask where is the restroom? And we can probably expect Google to keep Conversation Mode free like it's done with its other applications. No date is announced, but watch for this to become publicly available soon.
Watch this video of the app in action from consumer electronics trade show Internationalen Funkausstellung Berlin, known as the IFA, this past September: