So far the promise of seamless real-time translators in our ears has been just that – a promise. The Bragi Dash Pro, which arrived earlier this year, works via a third-party phone app, and when I've had it running it's worked pretty well, but it's not seamless. Most of the legwork is still being done by our smartphones.
Google's new Pixel Buds also do real-time translation, and at its 4 October event we got an impressive demo on stage showing off what looked like a much more Babel Fish-esque experience. Again, most of the magic is happening inside the phone, but this time it's all within Google's own house; the recordings are processed by Assistant and read through Google Translate.
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The Pixel Buds are a direct shot back at Apple's AirPods (there's no headphone jack on the Pixel FYI), but also quite different. Google too wants a pair of headphones that it can call its own, but these are neckbuds, not totally wireless like the AirPods. Like how Apple's work with Siri, you'll be able to speak to Google Assistant through Google's Pixel Buds, and that's one of their best features.
But it's that translation that I'm most excited about, and I gave it a whirl to find out exactly how it works. First of all, you're still going to need your phone. In fact the translate feature only works on Google's Pixel phones, though other smartphone users will be able to use Assistant.
To translate a conversation, one person needs to wear the Buds while the other speaks through the phone. To interact with Google Assistant, you need to hold a finger down on the right earbud and speak. I was told to say, "Ok Google, help me speak French" and Google Translate popped up on the Pixel, defaulting to a French-to-English conversation.
From there, it's a case of holding down a finger on the right earphone for the duration you're speaking, and then simply listening when the other person's words are being translated back to you. The noisy demo room wasn't ideal for this, and Assistant struggled a few times to pick up what either of us were saying, but we managed to get a few exchanges going.
So I then asked the obvious question: If two people both had the Buds, could you carry out a conversation without taking your phone out of your pocket? Google told me it's something it's thinking about, but not something that will be available out of the door.
Google Translate can already convert 40 languages, and working through Assistant/Google Translate means that it streamlines the process better than Bragi's earphones, but the jury is out on how well this will work when out and about.
It was also hard to judge the sound quality in my demo; I only listened to one song in a very noisy room. But these aren't in-ear headphones, so they're not as isolating as what I'd normally wear, and that might be a turn-off for some people.
The Pixel Buds will last around five hours on a single charge, says Google, but can be powered up again from the case. You should get three to four recharges from that. At $159 they're just a tiny bit cheaper than AirPods but still a bit pricey, especially as the Translate feature, as cool as it is, probably won't be considered a must-have for many people. But for Pixel owners especially, the Buds are a decent proposition right now.
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