Of all the things that Google announced today at its hardware event, the Pixel Buds seemed the most magical to me. That’s because these wireless earbuds can do real-time translation in 40 languages.
On stage, Google showed how the $159 earbuds could translate in real time from Swedish to English and from English to Swedish. To me, that brings up memories of the Babel Fish, the fictional translator from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The science fiction novel by Douglas Adams used the Babel Fish idea to solve the problem of alien races communicating across the galaxy. And it has inspired tech creators over the years to try to replicate the Babel Fish in real life.
Google’s device comes pretty close, and that could be a real boon for travelers. But it does require an internet connection and cloud processing, which could slow down the overall process of translation and render it inoperable in places where you can’t get online.
Google told us that the earbuds are connected via Bluetooth to the smartphone, and that the smartphone microphone picks up the spoken words. It sends them over the cloud to Google’s data centers, where Google Translate produces a translation. It sends back the translated words in the form of speech to the phone, which transfers them back to the earbuds.
You can see how this might be improved in the future. The buds are large now, but over time, they could be miniaturized. And they could also have artificial intelligence processing inside to either handle the translation or perhaps just accelerate it. That’s prohibitively expensive now, but companies like Nvidia are working hard to put AI at the edge of the network. That would also help the earbuds work without an internet connection.
Microsoft has its own rival technology for translation with Bing Translator, as do some other startups. The Google Pixel Buds translation seemed to work well on stage, with very little delay in the conversation. Having traveled abroad, I can’t tell you how useful this would be when you are trying to find your way around a new city.