In the cult sci-fi classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you slide a yellow Babel fish into your ear to get translations in an instant. In the real world, Google has come up with an interim solution: a $159 pair of earbuds, called Pixel Buds. These work with its Pixel smartphones and Google Translate app to produce practically real-time translation.

  • Breakthrough

    • Near-real-time translation now works for a large number of languages and is easy to use.
  • Why It Matters

    • In an increasingly global world, language is still a barrier to communication.
  • Key Players

    • Google and Baidu
  • Availability

    • Now

One person wears the earbuds, while the other holds a phone. The earbud wearer speaks in his or her languageEnglish is the defaultand the app translates the talking and plays it aloud on the phone. The person holding the phone responds; this response is translated and played through the earbuds.

Google Translate already has a conversation feature, and its iOS and Android apps let two users speak as it automatically figures out what languages they’re using and then translates them. But background noise can make it hard for the app to understand what people are saying, and also to figure out when one person has stopped speaking and it’s time to start translating.

Pixel Buds get around these problems because the wearer taps and holds a finger on the right earbud while talking. Splitting the interaction between the phone and the earbuds gives each person control of a microphone and helps the speakers maintain eye contact, since they’re not trying to pass a phone back and forth.

The Pixel Buds were widely panned for subpar design. They do look silly, and they may not fit well in your ears. They can also be hard to set up with a phone.

Clunky hardware can be fixed, though. Pixel Buds show the promise of mutually intelligible communication between languages in close to real time. And no fish required. 

 

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This feature is written by Rachel Metz & originally appeared in MIT Technology Review.

 


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