October 20, 2017

Google Pixel Buds, Travel & Real-time Translation

by Malek Murison

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Here at Travelshift we like to keep our finger on the pulse of the latest trends and products in the world of technology, particularly if it's clear they are going to have an impact on the way we travel. Few things define our travel experience like language. In many ways it's central to culture, a passport of a sort, your ticket into the hearts and minds of the locals who call each destination home...

Translation has always been central to the travel experience

Bilingual dictionaries have been making travellers’ lives easier since Roman times. That might seem far-fetched, but since at least 2,000 years ago, a dictionary existed to help translate between Etruscan and Latin. And the Romans were not the only ones. The Tibetans and Medieval Jews were at it too.

Clearly we humans have not yet refined the process sufficiently enough because there is still a palpable (and deserved) buzz around Google’s latest iteration of real-time translation technology - the Pixel Bud, which goes on sale this November.

Wait, we hear you say, haven’t we been here before? Well, kind of. Ever since Douglas Adams ushered the idea forth in his seminal Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the notion of real-time language translation has been on the radar for tech companies. Indeed, readers might already be familiar with the Bragi Dash Pro, Skype Translator or Fujitsu - earlier attempts to do the same thing as Google, but different. So how does Google’s latest gadget compare and what, if anything, might this mean for the casual traveller?

Introducing the Pixel Bud

First things first, what is the Pixel Bud and why should you care? According to Google’s blog, these really are earphones with a difference:

Pixel Buds bring Google smarts right to your ears, with answers and intel that would make James Bond jealous. Touch and hold the right earbud to ask your Assistant to play music, make a phone call, or get directions, all without pulling out your phone.”

The Pixel Buds weigh 14g, cost 9, and are semi-wireless (they connect to one another via a short cord). As a Google product, they are designed to pair automatically with your other devices via Bluetooth, but if you already own one of Google’s Pixel smartphones, the pairing becomes that much smoother.  They are very much designed to work in tandem with Google Assistant, presumably with the ultimate aim of eventually integrating and syncing one’s entire psycho-social-professional world with the Google-sphere. They come in a compact case, which doubles as their battery charging cocoon when they are not helping you organise your entire life - and the fully charged battery should last a healthy 5 hours, with the charging case storing an additional 19 hours before needing to re-juice. They look quite different from Apple’s truly wireless Airpods, but satisfyingly futuristic nonetheless. At the very least they demonstrate a clear trend amongst tech companies for this new type of hardware.

So far, so cool. But the bit we really care about is their much-feted capacity to instantaneously and accurately translate between 40 different languages on command. Practically, it works like this: whilst wearing the device, you hold down a button on the right earbud and inform Google Assistant of which language you would like to ‘speak.’ As you talk the Pixel phone’s speaker translates your words and plays them out loud. When your interlocutor replies, you immediately hear the translation through your earphones. You can watch them in action at Google’s launch here:

This is what we’ve all been waiting for...isn’t it?

Without a shadow of doubt, this is an exciting technology. The idea of carrying it around and using it to communicate in different languages is a breakthrough of sorts. Moreover, with the recent improvement in Google translate algorithms, it appears that it could genuinely provide a handy service for anybody who finds themselves out of their linguistic comfort zone.

This will be especially useful for translations between languages with different alphabets or complex phonetics; in other words, languages for which a bilingual dictionary is of limited value. Indeed, compared to a bilingual dictionary, the Pixel Buds appear to have numerous other advantages too. They can translate back and forth with equal efficacy; they model good pronunciation - and they are hands-free - not to mention being quicker to use. All in all, they have the makings of an appealing package for the modern traveller. But hold up there for one second. Before you place the Pixel Buds at the top of your packing list, there is another side. There is always another side.

As with any breakthrough technology, there are the predictable results and there are the unintended consequences. For one, as we all know, communication is only ever partly linguistic. How the buds fare with translating idiomatic expressions and culturally sensitive issues remains a one big unknown. Our favourite example illustrating the pitfalls of literal translation is the apocryphal story of a young politco in Brussels who faithfully translated from French, “en ces temps difficiles, il faut compter sur la sagesse normande”, into the semantically correct English. “in these difficult times, we must count on Norman Wisdom.” We speculate that the British comedian would have been flattered if not a little perplexed to discover how indispensable his talents were considered in times of continental political meltdown.  

Needless to say, a perfect semantic translation is not always the same as a perfect translation. So, linguistic and cultural relativism will continue to bedevil the unwary traveller, but ordering a pint of bia hoi on the streets of Saigon may just have gotten a fraction easier.

The second consideration: Do Google's new buds actually offer anything radically different to what is already on offer by having the google translate app on your phone? Many people still remain ignorant that you can already use your phone camera to capture foreign text and have google translate convert it into your mother tongue simultaneously - or that you can already record live using your phone mic and use the app for real-time translation.

Instead of something radically new then, might this be more of a case of same-but-different? Perhaps, but certainly it also represents a pretty exciting development. The more important question for us is whether it can help enhance the travel experience, and the simple answer is: sure, why not? Anything that helps you to immerse in a new culture must be seen as an asset, right? Communication fosters relationships, and relationships are a way of getting deeper into the place you are visiting. Undoubtedly, the hands-down best way to immerse yourself culturally is to actually learn the language of course, but the Pixel Buds need not replace the need to learn and master other tongues. In fact, there is no reason why it can’t be used as a valuable learning aid too.

Something gained and something lost?

So how is the Pixel Bud set to redefine one’s travel experience? For all their usefulness, could this be one more thing that paradoxically makes travellers less self-sufficient? Imagine having yourself a wild time in rural Lapland, drinking salmon soup and chin-wagging with the locals - when suddenly the battery gives out or your connection goes down. With your single line of communication cut, you find yourself very much alone without so much as a syllable in common. That is of course, if the Pixel Bud can translate any of the indigenous Sami languages in the first place. To be sure, the 40 languages that Google can translate is a lot, but how far off the beaten track will it really take you?

Perhaps the biggest impact to consider, however, has nothing to do with the software inside the Pixel Buds themselves, but is the hardware itself. It is already getting harder and harder to leave the tech behind when travelling and really immerse oneself in a completely foreign, new environment, but with something that threatens to become so essential permanently nestled in your ears, it is going to be that much harder to simply be in a foreign place.

This new species of wearable tech we are being served is bordering on the line between wearability and insertability. In short, we are entering a phase of technology in which our devices are not necessarily designed to be taken out. Ever. They are a way of being able to be permanently on your phone without having to constantly take it out of your pocket. We think that this is probably the greatest consideration presented by the Pixel Buds, and one that travellers should think about deeply when weighing up the pros and cons of purchase.

Travellers will always search for ways to redefine and enhance their experience. The camera made the sketchpad obsolete; electronic money removed the need for travellers cheques; and aeroplanes made long distance land travel a choice rather than a necessity. Ultimately it all comes down to what kind of travelling interests you most. There is every gadget out there promising to ease your way, but you’d do well to remember that sometimes the obstacles are also what make the adventure worthwhile.

Harnessing technology to improve the travel experience

If there's one thing we know about at Travelshift, it's how to harness technology to improve the experience of travel service providers and their customers. Not only do we make travel agent's lives easier by providing a comprehensive marketplace platform that removes the headaches from starting up in the travel industry. We also encourage our partners to build platforms founded on community-driven content.

This technique allows travellers to get to know a destination and its locals before they arrive, and has a huge impact on driving loyalty and repeat business in an industry not known for either.

Another technology we've harnessed is seamless localisation, an element of our marketplace platform which allows our partners to easily integrate products and services into new international markets.

It's clear that Google's latest innovation has the potential to make the travel experience even more seamless with real-time translation. There are positives and negatives to that, as we've discussed above. One thing we know for sure is that technology, when harnessed in the right way, can have a transformative impact on travellers and service providers.