We've all been there. You're traveling abroad when the language barrier just becomes too much. You're tired, you're trying to find a hotel and no one can understand you. Or maybe you're meeting new business contacts or distant relatives for the first time. But after you shake hands, you realize there's not much to say.
Phrasebooks are fine and Google Translate gets the job done, but what if you could hear what your long-lost cousin is saying in your own language, moments after she says it? It's a Star Trek-style dream, but one that's inching closer to reality.
Say hello/hola/bonjour to the Pilot Translation Earpiece from Waverly Labs. What looks like a fully wireless headset with separate left and right earpieces is actually a promising new product that can help bridge the communication gap. I saw the Pilot today at the 4YFN startup conference that's held in conjunction with Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
Because the Pilot is still in a prototype phase, things may change between now and when it's released later this year. Keep in mind these were our initial thoughts with preproduction hardware and software. But from what I saw, Waverly is off to a great start. Here's how it works.
I'm usually not a fan of things that stick in my ear, but these were comfortable and sleekly designed. Once I twisted them in correctly, they felt relatively secure -- enough for me to walk around. You can change the tip depending on your ear size and you can choose from three colors: red, white and black. When you're not using them, you can carry them in a plastic case, which has an integrated battery for charging the earpieces -- the feature that's quickly becoming the industry standard for fully wireless headphones. On their own, the earpieces are supposed to last 3 to 4 hours on full charge.
The heart of the process is Waverly's app, which both and your friend need to download onto your phones (it's free on both iOS and Android). Then, once you "sync" your conversation through a matching QR code on the app, you're off and speaking. Press a button on the app and talk into the earpiece's microphone to record what you want to say. Your voice is then piped through Waverly's machine translation software which converts it to text on your friend's app. If he also has his own earpiece, your friend will hear a translated version of what you said, albeit via a computer voice.
You'll need a data connection to make the process work (Waverly says it's working on offline support). Sure, they may limit the Pilot's use if you're in the middle of nowhere, but that's true for Google Translate, as well. On the other hand, it does mean that you and your friend don't even need to be in the same room. As the app works independently, you can use it with your handset's speakerphone if you don't have a set of earpieces.
I talked for a few minutes with one of Waverly's reps, mostly exchanging basic pleasantries about Barcelona and where I was from. She spoke in Spanish and I spoke in English. There was a few-second lag between her speaking and me getting the text and audio, but it was quick enough that it didn't feel awkward. The audio on the earpiece could have been a tad louder, but we were talking in a noisy convention hall. The noise-canceling microphones on the earpieces did a decent job of cutting out the ambient noise.
Even with my rudimentary high school Spanish I could see that the translation was pretty accurate. You just need to remember a few things. Uncommon words like company names, slang and personal names may not translate well. The system had trouble with "CNET," for instance, but missteps like that are expected anytime you use both voice recognition software and machine translation.
The important thing is that you should get the gist of what is being said. I wouldn't use the Pilot to translate a debate about chemical formulas, but I suspect that it will be fine for everyday chit-chat. Waverly says that the software will adapt between dialects of the same language, like UK and US English.
What's cool about the Pilot Translation Earpiece is what it could do. Languages are beautiful, fascinating, but also frustrating and even dangerous when you and a person in front of you can't understand each other. I like the Pilot's potential and it helps that, during my brief period using it, it performed relatively well. It's a work in progress, but the development behind it is interesting and I'm eager to see where it goes.
Waverly says that the first devices will ship to this summer to people that funded Waverly's Indiegogo campaign. They paid $249 to secure a product, which will support five languages to start: French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, English.
Later in the fall, the Pilot will go on general sale for $299. There will be an additional fee to add languages to the app. Besides the five languages mentioned above, the second round of devices should support Turkish, Hindi, Greek, Korean and Russian with more languages to come. As mentioned, you don't need the earpieces to use the app, but the per-language fee means you won't get be able to use the service for free.