Star Trek’s Universal Translator and the Babel Fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; both instantly translated between any language – it’s a concept that’s moving from the realms of sci-fi into reality
Waverly Labs, a New York-based start-up, has unveiled a new earpiece that works in pretty much the same way. The Pilot, as the earpiece is called, combines speech recognition, computer translation and wearable technology. As with the sci-fi gadgets/fish, when someone speaks one language, The Pilot translates it into a different language. The idea is to create a free-flowing conversation without any of the awkward misunderstandings that come with language barriers.
Founder Andrew Ochoa didn’t take his inspiration from Star Trek or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, however; it was actually because of a French woman he met, who later became his girlfriend. She didn’t speak English very well and he wanted to communicate with her in her own language. In a promo video, he surprises her with the earpieces, which translate his English into fluent French – and vice versa. His plan, he says, is to create “a life untethered by language barriers.”
The earpieces work by connecting to a smartphone using Bluetooth. They only translate if two people are wearing them – meaning they won’t translate any random language excerpts they pick up from elsewhere. At the moment, The Pilot has been developed for Latin-based and Germanic languages. Waverly plans to ship the devices, priced at $299, next year, or less if you’re up for contributing to The Pilot’s Indiegogo crowdfunding project. Later this year, Waverly will be launching a translation smartphone app.
Microsoft and Google have also been advancing their own translating technology for smartphones. There is currently a function to translate languages on Skype – but as frequent users know, it’s often hard to hear what someone is saying on the video calling app in your own language, let alone another. The Pilot is designed to whisper the translation in the ear, meaning you don’t have to shove your phones in each others’ faces to have a conversation. There is a time lag on this chatter, however, making it a bit clunky for fast-talkers, who might end up speaking over one another.
It’ll probably be a long, long time before we see this technology replace the United Nations interpreters – known as being some of the best in the world. But who knows, if The Pilot is a success, the days of trying to sweet-talk someone in a foreign language, before failing miserably as your efforts get lost in translation, could be a thing of the past; The Pilot can just whisper sweet nothings to them instead. Sure, chunky plastic earpieces aren’t particularly sexy, but they’re definitely less of a vibe-killer than slipping a Babel Fish into a stranger’s ear.