Google Pixel Buds: is Babel fish dream of in-ear translation now a reality?

AI-powered translation piped through wireless earbuds is another big step towards the removal of the language barrier

Alongside the new Pixel 2 smartphones Google unveiled on Wednesday night, the company also launched a set of Bluetooth earbuds called the Pixel Buds with one standout feature: instant translation between 40 different languages using a Pixel smartphone.

In a live demo on stage, the Pixel Buds were shown translating short phrases back and forth between English and Swedish using Google Translate running on a Pixel 2 smartphone.

“It’s like you’ve got your own personal translator with you everywhere you go. Say you’re in Little Italy, and you want to order your pasta like a pro. All you have to do is hold down on the right earbud and say, ‘Help me speak Italian’,” wrote Adam Champy, Google’s product manager for the Pixel Buds, on the company’s blog.

While the demonstration was impressive, this isn’t the first time Google has rolled out the ability to do near real-time translation back and forth between different languages, and it isn’t the first firm to put that capability into a set of earbuds.

The Google Translate app on Android and Apple’s iPhone can already perform the same trick. After activating the live mic it will listen for your sentence in English and translate and speak the same sentence in your choice of 40 languages. It will then listen out for the reply and perform the same trick into English. Some elements rely on a good data connection, but with the abolition of roaming charges within Europe at least it doesn’t cost the earth while on holiday from the UK.

The Bragi Dash Pro wireless earbuds put AI in your ear with motion commands, smart controls and Babel Fish-like translation via the iTranslate app.
The Bragi Dash Pro wireless earbuds put AI in your ear with motion commands, smart controls and Babel Fish-like translation via the iTranslate app. Photograph: BRAGI ( handout)

For those who would prefer to have the translator in your ear, not shouting aloud, Bragi’s truly wireless Dash Pro earbuds have been able to perform the same trick since May, again between 40 languages, using the iTranslate app on an iPhone.

Meanwhile Microsoft’s Skype Translator can do real-time translation between eight languages over a voice or video call or between 50 languages for text chat, making conference calling between nations and languages possible.

In many ways, the machine-learning and artificial intelligence expansion has pushed what we thought was possible out of the realms of science fiction into reality.

None of the currently available technologies and gadgets are quite the true Babel fish in your ear, but with the Pixel Buds and the Bragi Dash Pro, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy dream of a seamless removal of language barriers is closer than ever.


Samuel Gibbs

The GuardianTramp

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