At Google’s event in San Francisco on Wednesday, the company confirmed that we are indeed living in the future. The $159 Pixel Buds, designed in conjunction with the new Pixel 2 phone, promise on-the-go translations in 40 languages at the touch of a button. If the product works as well in practice as it did on stage, it will mean real-time translations that will feel like something out of a sci-fi novel.
“What if your headphones could do more than let you listen to your favorite music?” Adam Champy, product manager for Google Pixel Buds, said in a statement. “What if they could help you answer (almost!) any question just by asking, or even help you understand someone speaking a different language?”
That’s the pitch for the Pixel Buds, which use the Google Assistant artificial intelligence system to translate and answer questions using your voice. Say for example you’re in Italy, and you want to order some pasta. Hold down the button on the right earbud, and say to Google Assistant, “Help me speak Italian.” Once activated, speak in English and it will come out as Italian through your phone’s speaker. When the waiter responds in Italian, the translation will come through the earbuds.
Watch the headphones in action here.
The headphones bear more than a passing resemblance to the Babel fish, described in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The fish, used by Arthur Dent to understand the Vogon creatures, worms its way into the recipient’s ear to provide real-time translation:
To highlight how impressive it is that this stuff exists, Adams’s original novels and radio series aren’t even 40 years old. In that time we’re already using space-age technology conjured up by Adams that was meant to seem impossibly alien and outlandish.
A similar technology appears in Guardians of the Galaxy. In the film, none of the Guardians actually speak English. They all have translation chips inside their head that makes communication seamless.
Of course, what Google’s doing isn’t entirely new. Users can access the same real-time translation features through the Google Translate app on iOS and Android. Similarly, Microsoft’s Skype Translator offers real-time voice translation during video calls.
But it’s the way Google has packaged these technologies that makes it impressive — sure, you can get your phone out and translate, but if you can push a button in your ear and instantly hear results, you’re probably a bit more likely to use it on the spur of the moment.
Perhaps the next step will be something more akin to the Guardians of the Galaxy, where the headphones translate for you automatically. Websites like Facebook already attempt auto-translation where appropriate, so perhaps a voice-based system isn’t too far off.
The Pixel Buds will pair with phones running Android 5.0 or higher, but the translation feature unfortunately only works with Google Pixel phones. The headphones will start shipping next month to the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Australia and Singapore.
If you liked this article, check out this video of headphones that monitor your brainwaves to keep you focused.