Fans of the book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by the late Douglas Adams, will remember the Babel Fish:
The Babel Fish is small, yellow, and simultaneously translates from one spoken language to another. When inserted into the ear, its nutrition processes convert sound waves into brain waves, neatly crossing the language divide between any species you should happen to meet whilst traveling in space.
What an ingenious idea Adams had! Finally doing away with the Biblical problem of being unable to comprehend what people, or space aliens, in this case, are trying to say to you. Well, of course, sticking an odd fish in you ear was strange comedy for his book and the movie that followed, but the real-life problem remains.
We probably need something more like the “Universal translator” from Star Trek.
Fortunately for us, we may have just reached the year that a real sort of technological Babel fish/Universal translator of sorts has been made available for actual order. A company called Waverly Labs from New York, New York has launched a product called, “The Pilot.” Touted as, “ The world’s first smart earpieces which translates between users speaking different languages.”
Waverly Labs CEO, Andrew Ochoa, said the idea came to him after meeting a French girl. Initially, the streamlined crescent-shaped earpiece will translate the Romance Languages of French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish into English, and vice versa. More languages will follow that and be downloadable by smart phone app, according to their Facebook page.
The crowdfunded product has generated a huge amount of attention, with $1,993,948 USD raised by 8806 backers as I write this. As of May 25th, the company had over 150,000+ people signed up for the preorder. Waverly Labs Facebook:
We haven’t released the full retail costs but it will be roughly $249-$299. However the early bird is roughly $129 for pre-order, but it’s first come first serve because it’s limited quantity.
A few of the features of the earpiece:
- offline use so internet is not necessary for function
- dual noise-cancelling microphones to filter out ambient noise
- smart phone app that translates through speech recognition, machine translation, and speech synthesis. App can also be used as a phrasebook
- Rechargeable Li-ion battery with 4-6 hours of talking time
- Bluetooth low energy
- Secondary earpiece for wirelessly streaming music or sharing with the person you are speaking to
- Conference mode in the app for conversing with groups of people wearing the earpiece
The Indiegogo site claims that translation happens without interruption, but in the YouTube videos, there seems to be a very slight delay. The preorders started in May of this year, and the Pilot is expected to hit stores in September. As a crowdfunded product, the actual dates are yet to be seen though. Can it deliver on the extraordinary potential it seems to have to break down language barriers?
As anybody who has used a computer translator knows, you constantly run into subtle problems with actual meaning being lost in translation to some degree. A machine can’t determine the emotion used along with the words, and nuances of meaning that a human being can. The chances to offend somebody are very high, if computers are relied upon for translation.
If machines become too sophisticated and logical, they’ll never be able to correctly interpret human speech. If they don’t, they’ll never be able to fully interpret all the elements that come into play when two humans communicate.
However imperfect the translation is, the chance to get the gist of another person’s speech without having to totally learn the language is exciting indeed, and you don’t have to put a Babel Fish in your ear. The fact that this startup company has apparently beaten Google to the punch of delivering on a device like this is amazing, if it actually works. Google’s Google Translate App has offline translation of 52 languages, and Instant camera translation. You can also use your device’s camera to translate text instantly in 29 languages.
Waverly Labs may not have the funding of Google, but I’m rooting for the underdogs to deliver on the promise of the Pilot – one of the most exciting gadgets I’ve seen in quite a while if it can live up to the hype!
See more about the Pilot earpiece below:
Featured image from YouTube Screenshot of the Babel Fish below: