"I'll be right back," my date says. "I just need to go to the bathroom."
As anybody who's ever been on a date knows, this brief moment of escape acts as sweet oxygen in the cauldron of tension and self-doubt that goes with trying to impress a relative stranger.
It gives you both time to regroup. You can reflect on why you told that story, in this spot. It's also your chance to run away, if things are careening off a cliff, despite the majority of us instead choosing to text away to as many WhatsApp group chats as physically possible inside the three minute window.
Except, this wasn't an ordinary date, and so I wasn't pulling out my phone and typing out the usual tragic summary of events. No, this was something different. I was on a date equipped with a pair of translation earbuds.
Pilot, for the uninitiated, are a pair of smart earbuds from New York startup Waverly Labs, and its ambition is to become a real life version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's in-ear, alien Babel fish.
So, the bigger question: why am I taking the eternally awkward concept of dating and cranking it up multiple notches?
Well, let's rewind things back to May 2016. Around that time, Waverly Labs' Indiegogo campaign was blowing up, well on its way to eventually raising $4,426,011 and rounding out as one of the most successful crowdfunding projects of all time.
But while the translation concept was easy to get excited about — one that even your parents would be able to grasp if you explained it to them — it was the startup's campaign video that stuck in my mind. It featured Waverly Labs' CEO, Andrew Ochoa, having a conversation with a woman speaking French. I don't think it was a date, but it got me thinking.
Reading out something in another language in a supermarket and listening back to the translation? That's a no brainer. Asking for directions while holding out your phone? Sure.
But the idea that this could truly eliminate language? Meh, it still felt like a bit of a long-shot.
Now, almost two years after its campaign launched, the Pilot earbuds are ready to hit mass production and ship around the globe. And since this is a relatively new technology, I could think of no better way to put them to the test than with a total stranger in a date scenario.
Finding the date
Along with working MWC in Barcelona, I decided to chance my arm and go swipe-crazy on dating apps Tinder and Bumble. It turns out that roughly 95% of the people on these dating apps are Americans on exchange programmes, but I did begin speaking to one girl from Brazil travelling around Europe. Let's call her Girl X.
Since Pilot works best when the language being translated is the person's first language, and also now supports 15 languages and gives the option to select regional dialects, I figured this was perfect. She tells me she's staying in London for a few days and would love to meet up — again, perfect. She even speaks English, as well as her native Portuguese, which could act as relief in the event the translation element of this date fails miserably.
It's all going surprisingly smoothly in this stage, but there's still a few stumbling blocks to overcome here. Since Pilot is developed to pick up on a specific frequency of sound, using the earbuds in coffee shops or busy bars is still a struggle, Waverly Labs tells me.
"Fancy a romantic stroll around east London in sub-zero temperatures while we talk in different languages?" — not exactly the greatest pitch to a foreign stranger.
But alas, I'm running out of time. Girl X's days in London are limited, so I bite the bullet and suggest meeting for a couple of drinks. I have no real idea about what I'm going to ask her. Hell, I've not even disclosed the ulterior motive for this date just yet. But my plan is to improvise, keeping things as fluid as they would if you were to meet someone in everyday life.
Cleared for take-off
I'm shaking on the tube, on my way meet Girl X. Part of me is seeing the funny side of this experiment, but part of me is also contemplating whether language has truly been holding me back all this time. My mind is swirling.
I follow Google Maps into a poorly-lit, side-street Soho bar, where Girl X has been drinking with friends, and my head is on a swivel trying to find her before anybody thinks I'm on my own. Oddly, my anxious state makes me think everybody in the room is somehow aware of my plan -- "I've been rumbled. It's all a trap," I think to myself.
Girl X spots me, thankfully, and we exchange the usual awkward stages of the date. "How are you? What've you been up to? What drink do you want?
Do you mind if I give you this translation earbud so I can test them?".
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The bar is too loud to break out the Pilots at this stage. Plus, it feels far too early and awkward to crank things up to that level. But we spend the next hour or so getting to know each other. And as the drinks help the flow of the conversation and the crowd thins out, I decide it's time to break the news to her that I have a pair of language translators sitting in my bag that I'm looking to test.
I think I've nailed the pitch. Incorrect.
Girl X has absolutely no idea what I'm talking about. Looking back, I'm convinced she thinks I'm confessing to being some kind of roustabout salesman, trying desperately to flog some headphones and roaming around from date to date just to make a living. It gets uncomfortable, before I break out the Pilot video and smooth things out with roughly 5-10 more minutes of explanation.
Girl X's mind has been blown, she's on board. It's show time.
But in order to make use of the Converse mode, she has to download the Pilot app, select Guest mode and scan a QR code on my phone, while I enter all the details about language and gender.
'Why do you think I'm strange?'
I hand her one of the earbuds, and after a couple of false starts we begin with some light chat; essentially repeating conversations we've had minutes earlier in English. But still, I'm surprised at how well the Pilot is able to pick up my English. Her responses in Portuguese are largely on track and show up in the Pilot app, though it's sometimes tough to track the tense of a conversation.
Latency, also, isn't too much of a concern. Don't get me wrong, there's definitely a bit of awkward pausing. A couple of times I looked at her and wondered, "Is this the sentence when the translator skews off course and tells her I think she looks like a whale?", but generally there was around two or three seconds of silence between the end of speaking and the translation being fed back to the earpiece.
We talk about the weather, as is British custom, and I ask her where she's from in Brazil and what she does. The Pilot picks up the odd word incorrectly, but the odd buzzword helps me interpret what should have been the answer fairly simply. She explains to me that she studies medicine and works in a bar in Sao Paolo, and there's a couple of smiles between us as we recognise the Pilot picks this up largely correctly. I then go on to explain to her where I'm from, where I studied, when I moved to London and how I ended up in a job that involves taking translation earbuds onto dates.
In fact, the above image is a pretty typical example of the kind of quality of the feedback. Questions, for example, don't necessarily have the inflection fed back in the earpiece, or with a question mark on the screen, but you can intuitively pick this up. Then you have instances like her 'all people as strange as you' line. She later tells me this was, in fact, a question - asking whether all people in London are as strange as me.
Unfortunately, she doesn't elaborate on whether she considers me strange because of the earbuds or whether that's just my general vibe.
She explains to me she studies medicine... I go on to explain how I ended up in a job that involves taking translation earbuds on dates
We continue on in the same way for 15 minutes or so, but there's a very quick realisation from both of us that we're reaching for conversation. Things just aren't as comfortable when you know that something is listening to you, as well as relying on it to keep the conversation stable. The flow is there in parts, but it can still feel slightly forced in between different topics.
Humour, something that's pretty essential to the dating experience, is also hard. I just didn't feel confident that being sarcastic or using colloquial slang would be picked up and accurately represented in another language. I didn't want to make this any more stilted, after all.
Girl X also indicated that while her responses were mostly accurate, some of the tenses were off and the odd word was misinterpreted. Not a complete disaster, on this front, and certainly not something that killed the conversation, but it did feel as if an element was missing.
And while it was somewhat of a relief to return to English and continue embarrassing myself without the help of the tech, I would still say that the novelty itself helped the overall date. It gave us something to focus on and something to have a laugh with, even if it was bizarre.
May this be love?
I don't think I'll be jumping at the chance to date a complete stranger with translation earbuds again any time soon, but this does feel like a first step on the longer road towards real-time translation tech.
It makes things awkward - about as awkward as any date I've been on - but it's also fair to point out that, in hindsight, this perhaps isn't the best scenario for the technology at present, despite it being one of the more interesting. Either way, I can absolutely see a future in which AI develops and transforms translation hearables into something which truly breaks down this barrier in a convincing way.
For now, though, I'll be saving the Pilot earbuds for its Listen mode (which allow you to speak and receive a real-time translation back in a language of choice) and maybe even using them to help me learn Portuguese.
Who knows, maybe Girl X and I will have a future, after all.
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