As cool as smart displays — like Google’s Home Hub — are, I’ve never really wanted one. I’ve always been quite happy with the Google Home and Google Home mini speakers I have around my house.
But Google Assistant’s latest trick has me re-thinking that for the first time. Today, the company introduced a new feature called “Interpreter Mode,” which allows its assistant to act as a real-time translator during a conversation between two people.
It’s exactly as cool as it sounds.
The concept is similar to Google’s Pixel Buds, the $159 ear buds Google launched in 2017 that can provide real-time translations in your ears. But Interpreter Mode is even better, because it allows both people to benefit from Google’s translation abilities. Its capabilities are also a little more advanced, as product manager Vincent Lacey explained.
“This is native integration with Google Assistant itself; it should be a lot more seamless, a lot faster,” Lacey said.
I got to see Interpreter Mode in action at the concierge desk at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, one of three hotels where concierge staff is piloting the tool with hotel guests. I watched it interpret conversations from English to Chinese and Chinese to German — Interpreter Mode supports translations between 27 different languages — using both voice and text.
What stood out most to me during my brief demo was just how much Google has been able to simplify the complex task of interpretation.
You start by saying “Okay Google, German interpreter,” (or Spanish, French, etc.), and Google Assistant is able to detect the languages being spoken and translate back to the other person using voice and text.
Because Interpreter Mode lets both participants hear and see what the other is saying, it’s inherently much more conversational than what you’d get with Pixel Buds or by straight up talking into the Google Translate app on your phone. You know, like an actual interpreter.
Not that Interpreter Mode was totally perfect. In the demos I witnessed, there were some stumbles and awkwardness, like mistranslated words and confusion around how conversations should flow when you’re using a digital display as your interpreter. (There’s an audio cue each time the assistant is ready for the next speaker to start talking.)
But these were relatively minor issues. More importantly, the experience was good enough that Interpreter Mode actually seems like a viable way to converse with someone you wouldn’t otherwise be able to communicate with — at least for everyday conversations.
Though the company is testing the tech at a couple hotels, Google isn’t planning a big launch with businesses just yet, but it’s not difficult to imagine Interpreter Mode coming in handy in other scenarios, like at airports or with other businesses.
The feature is also one of the best reasons yet to invest in a smart display, like the Google Home Hub. Google says Interpreter Mode will work on normal Google Home speakers as well, but without the added benefit of a written translation.