It's been almost two years since Waverly Labs and its translation earbuds took to Indiegogo and raised $4,426,011, stirring up the tech world's lust for a real-life Babel Fish in the process.
In that time, a lot has changed, and the hearable industry is booming. Not only have we seen startups in the space rise, and sometimes fall, but the likes of Google, Samsung and Apple have also debuted audio-focused, wireless buds. The ears are now big business, and Waverly's Pilot are almost ready, finally, to reach out to a broader audience and take advantage.
Read this: Apple AirPods vs. Google Pixel Buds
Waverly Labs' CEO Andrew Ochoa told Wareable at MWC in Barcelona this week that the translation buds have recently started shipping to some original backers of the crowdfunding project, while mass production is slated for May or June.
The exact date will depend on a couple of factors, with Ochoa also indicating that the New York startup's team will be receiving feedback from early adopters and working on slightly tweaked prototypes before pushing the button on the retail rollout.
And while that potentially points to a different design, the Pilot boss says he doesn't know yet what the retail version of the buds will look like.
"Honestly, we don't know what changes we'll make," he told us. "The translation earbud itself is a totally new product, and while we have an idea of how people are using ours, we're going to see what kind of response we get. We need feedback from the early adopters we've been shipping to and establish if we need to make any major changes, or if it's good to go as it is."
Of course, launching late was never the plan for Ochoa and the team. Like a lot of crowdfunding projects, the startup missed its initial shipping goal, with challenges surrounding hardware and a desire to give backers a high-quality product pushing the timetable back for the hearables.
"It's just so hard to manufacture," says Bill Goethals, Waverly Labs' head of manufacturing. "This time last year we had a great working prototype, but that doesn't mean you're ready for mass production. You need certifications, you need so many different things in place before you're truly ready."
Battling for the ear
In the year since we last caught up with the company, some stern competition has arrived on the scene. Bragi, along with exploring activity tracking and unveiling Project Ears earlier this year, also now features real-time translation. And last October, Google revealed its Pixel Buds, which handle translation through the pipeline of a smartphone.
You would think the natural reaction to one of the biggest companies in the world entering a burgeoning space would bring an anxiety to Waverly Labs about their future. Ochoa and Goethals, though, painted a different picture of their reaction to the Pixel Buds hype.
"I guess we had the same reaction when Bragi announced their translation stuff with iTranslate. It was a bit like, 'Oh, this is interesting, this is fun, we're going to have a little competition here'. It's natural that when people saw the success we had from the Indiegogo campaign that we'd open the Pandora's box a little bit to this new form of translation.
"Google getting involved isn't scary. It would have been scary if they killed it and did it really well, but they rushed it. It just felt like it came from the marketing team to the product development team, as opposed to the other way around. They maybe they tried to rush [translation] and put it in there. They're obviously very capable, they have an infinite amount of resources, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to find success."
Goethals echoed the same sentiment, noting that Waverly Labs doesn't view Pixel Buds as the same kind of product, with Google's translation appearing to be more of an afterthought, rather than a dedicated component of its earbuds.
But even though Google swung and missed on its first attempt, that doesn't guarantee it won't return with a stronger iteration next time around.
Google getting involved isn't scary. It would have been scary if they killed it and did it really well, but they rushed it.
So, how does Waverly Labs avoid becoming another startup that fails to flourish after initial hardware struggles? In short, how does it avoid becoming the next Doppler Labs?
"Hardware is hard, for sure. But when you look at these different companies that have been going under, you know, we still have the mindset that having a strong product will solve your problem," Ochoa continued. "I'm not sure what the situation was with Doppler, but the audio augmentation space is a small market. I think they were trying to find their focus — they went from audio augmentation, to hearing aid stuff to translation at the end.
"We don't want to sit here and say that we've necessarily figured out the business model — maybe the technology needs to get cheaper, or maybe we have to return to the idea of a subscription for different languages. Right now, you buy it and have access to everything, but there's a lot of software costs that come with having a translation server," he said.
The business complexities, most likely, will change and develop over the coming months, but something the New York startup appears to have finally cracked is its product.
In a quick demonstration of the Pilot's Converse mode, I was able to chat comfortably with Goethals, who was speaking Spanish, amid background noise of the show floor. Accuracy isn't 100% - Waverly says that Pilot's translation works best if a language is spoke by a native - but it's certainly not far away. And importantly, the latency between speaking and hearing the language translation is fairly non-existent; at no point did we find ourselves looking around waiting for the Pilot's to feed the conversation back.
We'll be diving into the other translation mode, Listen, which allows users to translate speech (including their own) around them in 15 languages, as well as other aspects of the Pilot in our full review in a couple of weeks.
In the meantime, Ochoa and his team will continue working to push the hearable to the masses. After initial delays and seeing the space grow around them, it appears that Pilot is almost ready for take-off.
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