$4,424,256. That's the figure Pilot, a smart earpiece that promises to translate languages in real time, racked up after its crowdfunding campaign closed back in June 2016. That tidy sum made it one of the biggest wearable crowdfunding success stories of all time. To put things in perspective, Bragi The Dash, the original hearable, raised just shy of $3.9 million.
It's now almost 10 months since the campaign ended and CEO and director of product at Waverly Labs Andrew Ochoa assures us that New York-based startup is still on track to ship to backers this summer.
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"Things have been moving along really well for us," Ochoa said. "We've done roughly 22,000 units on pre-order and 4.5 million in pre-sales. In terms of production and development, things are moving on well. We are heading back to China next month to get the latest pre-production units. We will enter beta testing in April and if everything is perfect then we can begin shipping as scheduled."
While Ochoa and his team always believed they were working on something special and anticipated it would be well received, there was something other than the big bucks it raised that took them by surprise, and that was the community that formed around Pilot. That community has more than played its part in shaping the development of the device.
"They helped especially with regards to the design, specifically the design of the earpiece," Ochoa explained. "After we launched the initial campaign with the original prototype, we went back to the drawing board and designed the earpieces to be more ergonomic and fitting for a broader amount of people. On the development side, we also turn to our community in terms of feedback on what languages we support next."
The challenges of making hearables
Apple, Samsung, Bragi and Doppler Labs. All of these companies have struggled to get their truly wireless smart earbuds out of the door on time for a variety of reasons. So it comes as no real surprise to hear that making Pilot a reality has been no easy feat for the small team either as it continues to fine tune hardware and software ahead of its launch.
"Some of the difficulties we've experienced have been with the noise cancelling algorithms, microphone placement and antenna tuning," said Ochoa. "The pre-production units, which we will receive in about six weeks, should have all those things worked out."
"We definitely sympathise with the likes of Doppler Labs and Bragi," he said. "We're all in the smart earpiece space. Obviously our product is different but we are all in that space for sure. That's actually why we have a VP in manufacturing on the team that sees production from the beginning all the way through to the end and has that experience."
From a translation point of view, Ochoa revealed that the very international make up of the team has helped massively with its own internal testing but it has also conducted private testing with colleagues and people in their work space at its New York base. We unfortunately missed out on the opportunity to try it out, but there is now video of it in action to prove that it's up and running.
While we eagerly await the hardware, Waverly Labs is keen to make sure that users can quickly get to grips with how Pilot works. It's already made a simplified version of the companion app (iOS and Android) available, which you can download now. The full experience will of course be with the earpieces, but it's a smart move, especially when the Pilot community is serving up other scenarios where the device could be put to great use.
"The initial idea was that it would be that the earpiece would be for the international traveller", Ochoa said. "So I could wear them for wireless streaming music while I'm travelling and if I wanted to communicate with someone else, I could hand one over to you. What's really interesting is when we get emails from people who say, 'this is going to help me communicate with my in-laws', which makes us brainstorm new ways it could be used."
Sizing up the competition
Mymanu Clik smart translation buds set to launch in 2017
Pilot is not the only device on a quest to break down language barriers in real time. Since Waverly Labs launched its crowdfunding campaign, it's inherited a rival in the shape of UK startup MyManu and its Clik earbuds that offers online and offline translation (something Waverly Labs is working on) and will cost less than the $299 it'll cost to buy Pilot when it goes on sale.
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Ochoa is well aware of the competition, but is confident that the device Waverly is building will be the one that people will want. "With the amount of traction we have, the pre-orders we have and the money we have to see the development through, we are very confident about our product," he said. "I look at the fact that we've kept to our schedule for manufacturing, and the experts we have on the team that have a background in speech translation and machine translation. In terms of quality, time and schedule, we are definitely on top of things."
Similarly, he's not concerned that major players like Apple are already exploring the hearable space and actually feels the Cupertino tech giant's decision to smarten up the ears can only be a good thing.
"The hearable market within the wearable market is growing rapidly and with Apple doing its AirPods it's only going to help us," he explained. "Apple can do something that we can't and that's mass market education. With its AirPods it means the idea of wireless earpieces is already in the mind of the average consumer. That actually helps smaller startups like ourselves or anybody else."
The priority for Ochoa is to get Pilot to ship on time and to add additional languages (German, Greek, Russian, Arabic, Chinese Mandarin, Korean Japanese) by the end of the year. He's confident that they are on track to make that happen. But what comes next? How much smarter could these buds become? Will it always be about translation?
"We are definitely focused on translation right now. That's the paramount focus for the company," he told us. "Some features we want to start employing soon is in offline mode. If you are in the middle of the desert and you want to speak to someone in a different language and you don't have access to Wi-Fi or data, we want you to be able to use it. That's something we are working on, we already making plans for that, maybe within the next 18-24 months.
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"There's a lot of things we're always trying to improve. There's two main ones. The first is latency, which is the time it takes from when the language is first spoken to the time it's translated. The other is translation accuracy. Then on top of that you also have the user experience and creating a simple, fluid experience through the app. The entire process takes time."
Much like Bragi's approach to the Dash, Pilot will be improved with software updates that can be downloaded to your phone or directly to the earpieces. Ochoa admits that eventually the earpieces will have to be replaced but the company will continue to work to bring enhance the features and add more language support so that you will never have to worry about something getting lost in translation wherever you are in the world.
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