Automated translation of text on your smartphone? That’s so 2010. Now that a brand new year is underway, Google is venturing further into spoken language territory than ever before, enabling millions of Android users to overcome language barriers through its new Conversation Mode feature. And, it comes in time for the one-year anniversary of the company’s launch of the Google Translate app for Android.

The news comes as no surprise. We watched with interest as Eric Schmidt previewed the new feature for German and English a few months ago in Berlin. While development is obviously underway for other languages, Android users will only be able to use Conversation Mode for English and Spanish for now.

Automated interpretation is, in many ways, a no-brainer in Google’s quest to make information available to more people on the planet. We’ve written before about machine interpretation as a means of overcoming the limitations of literacy and the orality of communication.

While Google notes that the feature is still in experimental phases, the concept is not exactly new. We discussed JAHJAH‘s Mandarin<>English phone-based speech-to-speech translation offering back in 2008, and our research has repeatedly mentioned machine interpretation as a replacement technology for telephone interpreting. We also recently wrote about new apps that accomplish a similar purpose by connecting users to human telephone interpreters, following in the footsteps of Language Line’s iPhone application.

Unsurprisingly, Google points out that Conversation Mode has trouble coping with some of the same issues human interpreters have wrestled with for centuries — background noise, strong regional accents, and fast-paced speech. Of course, flesh-and-blood interpreters are still the gold standard — so long as they are professionally trained. There is an unfortunate shortage of qualified human interpreters in many parts of the world. Yet, the ubiquity of demand for their services is undeniable, especially in the quest to improve global access to information.

How will Google’s announcement affect the world? We believe the development is a very important one, for several reasons:

  • Heightened societal awareness of spoken language access. Machine interpretation has been available for awhile, but Google’s involvement will draw plenty of attention to this growing area of technology. As we noted in our annual predictions for 2011 and our report on global product development, expect to see more integrations of this type for devices used by the average consumer.
  • A boost in demand for services. In the near term, we don’t expect machine interpretation to replace the hard-working human interpreters who work each day in diplomatic, medical, legal, and business settings throughout the world. Instead, we believe that the increased communication that is likely to result from increased awareness will fuel the demand for high-quality human interpreting.
  • Greater visibility in the marketplace. Now that Google is hanging out a shingle, expect to see more language service providers start to pay attention to machine interpretation. According to our most recent study, the global language services market will reach US$29.789 billion in 2011. The data from our segmentation exercise revealed that the interpretation technology sector was worth less than 2% of that total.

As with machine translation in its early days, skeptics will scoff, and consumers will enjoy coming up with the many hilarious misinterpretations that Conversation Mode will no doubt produce. Just consider the fact that there are at least 40 different terms in Spanish for the word “popcorn.”

There will also surely be reports of individuals learning the value of high-quality human interpretation the hard way. After all, in some settings, a single misinterpreted word can mean the difference between life and death. However, there are other instances — such as a recent bomb scare — in which a simple machine interpretation tool might have helped to clarify a misunderstanding. Individuals will grapple to define the ideal use cases for this technology as it evolves.

Google’s announcement focused primarily on the updates to its core machine translation tool, which is also growing by leaps and bounds, with translation supported for 53 languages and daily usage from 150 countries around the world. This has resulted in interest from outside of the United States surpassing usage from Google’s home market.

While Google played down the news about Conversation Mode somewhat, don’t be fooled. The combination of the company’s broad reach, penchant for assigning big brains to tough technical problems, and sheer computing power makes this announcement an important one. And, with voice input already supported for 15 languages, today’s news from Mountain View is a clear sign of what is yet to come.

“Don’t blame me. I’m an interpreter.