New Earbuds Let You Speak That Language You Meant to Learn

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LAS VEGAS — There are some experiences that make you feel like you’re in the future. Out of the hundreds of products I look at, and the dozens I demo, at CES every year, a few deliver on that score. This year one is the translating earbuds from TimeKettle and Waverly Laps did the job. While not as seamless as the universal translators of science fiction, they do let you say something into one earbud and have the person wearing the other one hear it in their language.

TimeKettle, launching its WT2 Plus translating earbuds here at CES, is not the first set of earbuds tied to a translation system. The most famous is certainly Google’s Pixelbuds, which rely on the excellent Google Translate service. Google’s work slightly differently though, as you wear both of the buds, and your phone speaks the translation. For tourists that might be easier, as it doesn’t involve trying to get a stranger to stick an earbud in their ear. However, for co-workers, I can see a lot of appeal for the multiple-earbud solution. For example, if nearly everyone in a meeting understood the same language, only the person who didn’t would wear the translating earbud. They’d privately hear the translation, without distracting the other attendees.

The WT2 Plus earbuds can operate in a straightforward mode, where you tap the one you are wearing to indicate you want it to translate, or an automatic mode where it auto-detects when you are speaking and attempts to translate it. The company recommends the Automatic mode if the situation is fairly calm and quiet, but in a noisy environment like the CES show floor or a local market, the directed translation is more likely to work well.

Industry Pioneer Waverly Labs’ Pilot Still Going Strong

Waverly Labs Pilot translating earbudsWaverly Labs sells Pilot — a pair of earbuds that’s designed to make the most of both situations. You can use them as a set of earbuds that translate 15 languages (and 42 dialects), or you can share one earbud to carry on a conversation. You can buy the Waverly Labs buds for $179, and also use them to listen to music and phone calls. That makes them a pretty good deal compared with the $219 price for a pair of TimeKettle earbuds, although TimeKettle supports 20 languages. Both companies provide a charging base in the price. Waverly’s Pilot earbuds also transcribe the conversation for later reference. Having used some automated transcription services I’m skeptical about how accurate it is for any type of formal use, but it would at least provide a record of the gist of the conversation. The Pilot earbuds listen for pauses in your speech and then take the time to translate it. Like the WT2 Plus, and the Google Pixel Buds, all the translation is done in the cloud, so turnaround and accuracy are dependent on the quality of your internet connection.PixelBuds

I tried out a pair of the Waverly Labs Pilot earbuds at the show (or rather I tried out one while Sergio Del Rio, the company’s VP of Product, wore the other and spoke to me in Spanish). It worked quickly and smoothly. It also showed a transcription of the translation on his phone display, which was helpful. He explained that Pilot has a couple advantages over Google’s translating earbuds. First, Waverly has worked really hard on the user experience, and I agree it’s much more deeply thought through than Google’s simplistic version. For example, with Google, the audio for the other person needs to come out of the phone speaker, so there isn’t an option for both people to use an earbud. Pilot, in contrast, not only lets both of you use earbuds but can work for up to five people at once.

The Future for Translating Earbuds

Waverly is planning to release an upgraded version around June that will make it possible to share with groups of users with only one phone, as well as some other new features. I’m planning to spend some more time in real-world environments with the current version in the meantime.

As with any translation technology available today, none of these devices are perfect, and of course, you probably won’t know whether they got something wrong unless and until it has a different reaction than you expect. Depending on where you are traveling, there may also be cultural issues explaining to locals what is happening, or what they need to do to make the process work. Plus, it’s one more chunk of the day that is consumed fiddling with a piece of technology, and an app on a screen, when perhaps the goal of the trip is to get away and experience a new part of the world.

In my case, I look forward to more experimentation both on some upcoming international trips and for use in meetings with overseas clients. Of course, to get to the holy grail of a universal translator, the devices will have to be nearly perfect, operate instantly, and helpfully dampen out the sound of the original language so you can concentrate on the translation — although sometimes hearing the original audio is helpful for the intonations even if you don’t understand the words.

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