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

still from Embodied Intelligence video
still from Embodied Intelligence video

These weird virtual creatures evolve their bodies to solve problems

They show how intelligence and body plans are closely linked—and could unlock AI for robots.

pig kidney transplant surgery
pig kidney transplant surgery

Surgeons have successfully tested a pig’s kidney in a human patient

The test, in a brain-dead patient, was very short but represents a milestone in the long quest to use animal organs in human transplants.

conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned
conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned

A horrifying new AI app swaps women into porn videos with a click

Deepfake researchers have long feared the day this would arrive.

thermal image of young woman wearing mask
thermal image of young woman wearing mask

The covid tech that is intimately tied to China’s surveillance state

Heat-sensing cameras and face recognition systems may help fight covid-19—but they also make us complicit in the high-tech oppression of Uyghurs.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration 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.