Skip to Content

Babel-Fish Earbuds

April 2, 2020
Google

Babel-Fish Earbuds

  • Breakthrough

    Near-real-time translation now works for a large number of languages and is easy to use.
  • Why it matters

    In an increasingly global world, language is still a barrier to communication.
  • Key players

    Google and Baidu
  • Availability

    Now

In the cult sci-fi classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you slide a yellow Babel fish into your ear to get translations in an instant. In the real world, Google has come up with an interim solution: a $159 pair of earbuds, called Pixel Buds. These work with its Pixel smartphones and Google Translate app to produce practically real-time translation.

One person wears the earbuds, while the other holds a phone. The earbud wearer speaks in his or her languageEnglish is the defaultand the app translates the talking and plays it aloud on the phone. The person holding the phone responds; this response is translated and played through the earbuds.

Google Translate already has a conversation feature, and its iOS and Android apps let two users speak as it automatically figures out what languages they’re using and then translates them. But background noise can make it hard for the app to understand what people are saying, and also to figure out when one person has stopped speaking and it’s time to start translating.

Pixel Buds get around these problems because the wearer taps and holds a finger on the right earbud while talking. Splitting the interaction between the phone and the earbuds gives each person control of a microphone and helps the speakers maintain eye contact, since they’re not trying to pass a phone back and forth.

The Pixel Buds were widely panned for subpar design. They do look silly, and they may not fit well in your ears. They can also be hard to set up with a phone.

Clunky hardware can be fixed, though. Pixel Buds show the promise of mutually intelligible communication between languages in close to real time. And no fish required.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Here’s how a Twitter engineer says it will break in the coming weeks

One insider says the company’s current staffing isn’t able to sustain the platform.

Technology that lets us “speak” to our dead relatives has arrived. Are we ready?

Digital clones of the people we love could forever change how we grieve.

How to befriend a crow

I watched a bunch of crows on TikTok and now I'm trying to connect with some local birds.

Starlink signals can be reverse-engineered to work like GPS—whether SpaceX likes it or not

Elon said no thanks to using his mega-constellation for navigation. Researchers went ahead anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.