Google’s Pixel Buds are being hailed as a real-life version of Douglas Adams’ babel fish. However, while the babel fish fed on brainwave energy in order to work, Google’s version builds on the firm’s extensive work in the fields of artificial intelligence and neural networks.
According to the marketing jargon, the Pixel Buds translate 40 languages in real-time, for the bargain price of $159. Of course, we’ve heard promises of such technology before (most notably from Waverly Labs’ much-hyped crowdfunding campaign) but it seems that Google has won the race to actually deliver its product.
The wireless Pixel Buds work with a Pixel phone. They charge in their case, which can deliver four charges of up to five hours each. That’s pretty handy for those travelling their way around the world. Five hours is enough for plenty of sightseeing before stopping for a meal and charging the earbuds while eating.
In terms of linguistic ability, the Pixel Buds rely on the competence of the Google Translate app (I can almost hear the chuckles from those working in the professional translation industry!). They translate between the same 40 languages as the app does, providing a total of 1,600 language pairings.
To start translating, you simply hold your finger down on the right earbud and say “Help me speak (the language of your choice).” Say a phrase and the app will both say and display your translation on your phone. Conveniently, the person you are communicating with doesn’t need their own Pixel Buds in order to participate in the conversation – they just hold down a button and speak into your phone. The phone then delivers a translation of what they said directly into your ear.
Early reviews of the Pixel Buds, which go on sale this month, have been largely positive. The translation claims to be real-time and while it naturally has a small lag, it is fast enough to pretty much pass as this. In this respect, Google is well ahead of services such as Skype’s Live Translation, where the lag time leads to a rather stilted conversation.
As a result, the Pixel Buds provide an excellent option for those travelling around the world. No, they’re not perfect in terms of their translation capabilities. You wouldn’t want to attend a university lecture or list to someone read a literary classic with them, but their usefulness in terms of shopping, eating, checking into accommodation and other travel basics can’t be denied. Even if you don’t speak a word of the language of the country you’re visiting, Google Pixel Buds will allow you to communicate with others and understand their responses.
So are Google Pixel Buds the future of translation technology? Well, yes and no. Being based on the languages and abilities of the Google Translate infrastructure means that the Pixel Buds suffer the same limitations as that technology. Translation with them isn’t perfect and is unlikely to replace the provision of professional translation services any time soon. Nor can they help with avoiding the kind of misunderstandings that a lack of localisation services can give rise to.
However, as a product to allow people to communicate while travelling, the Pixel Buds are certainly useful. They give travellers the gift of almost real-time communication, where previously they would have been limited to simply gesturing in order to try and make themselves understood. They’re compact, easy to use and hold a decent enough charge to make them convenient for everything from a weekend away to a tour of the world. In this respect, Pixel Buds are very much part of the future of translation – or perhaps we should more accurately say, interpretation.
Louise Taylor is the content writer of the Tomedes translation blog. She writes on anything and everything related to the translation industry, from the importance of human translation to the latest industry trends.