When Google first showed off its Google Pixel Buds product with real-time translation functionality, it seemed like the device could be a powerful tool for global travelers.
Instant translations delivered by Google Assistant and Google Translate right to a traveler’s ears is something of a killer-app in theory. In practice, however, technological limitations prove the focus on translation is more of a clever marketing gimmick for the lackluster device instead of a transformational feature for travelers.
Skift received a Google Pixel Buds unit earlier this week, and has tested its translation feature. While the user experience with the headset is disappointing overall, the translation feature works basically as advertised.
The devil is in the details, though.
Let’s say you’re visiting Rome and want to order a cup of gelato, but don’t speak Italian. You do happen to have the Google Pixel Buds device, though.
You can tap the headset and ask Google Assistant to help you speak Italian. Your phone will then open conversation mode in the Google Translate app, where you can speak in English while the phone translates into both Italian speech and text.
The app will then listen for a response from the gelato maker through your phone, and translate his Italian back to English via your headset and on the app itself.
Google’s own marketing is pushing this as a major selling point.
“Order spaghetti bolognese like a pro, give directions to a traveler from China, or just impress your friends with real-time translations using Google Translate, Pixel Buds and a Pixel or Pixel 2,” reads a recent blog post from Google. “Your earphones hear you and your Pixel’s speaker will play the translation in another language. When the other person speaks, you’ll hear the translation right in your ear. To launch Google Translate, simply touch and hold your right earbud and say “Google, help me speak [LANGUAGE]”.
It’s not Star Trek’s universal translator, exactly, but it does work. There’s little delay when the phone processes the translation, and Google Assistant is effective at reading various languages back to the user.
Despite being able to ask for a translation using voice commands, though, a user still needs to pull their phone out in order to use the translation functionality. The headset doesn’t actively listen and translate what someone else is saying, limiting the usefulness of the feature overall.
The translations themselves, in our testing, are serviceable but devoid of nuance when it comes to idioms and other phrases, like Google Translate in general. You won’t be able to have an intelligent conversation using the tool, but it’s functional enough to ask for directions to a museum or order a currywurst in Berlin.
But what is the use case of having the headset read back the translation to a user when you have your phone out anyway?
Why fiddle with a headset and your phone when you can muddle through an imperfect conversation like countless travelers do each day?
The functionality is too awkward and imperfect to be of much use in its current state, which is the same reason you don’t see travelers currently wandering around diverse destinations with Google Translate pulled up on their phone. Voice commands do little to make this useful to the average consumer or business traveler.
As a first step towards a future where the language barrier has been broken down, the Google Pixel Buds are an interesting experiment. This headset will likely amount to nothing more than a niche product for Google fanboys/girls, but it is easy to see how this technology could evolve and develop in coming years.
This technology will only improve as the artificial intelligence and natural language processing arms race heats up between Google, Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, and others. As wireless headsets become more mainstream, due to handset manufacturers doing away with headphone jacks, the devices will be equipped with more robust microphones, as well.
From a travel industry perspective, there’s no real need to equip front-desk workers or anyone else with these pricy headphones when a cheap smartphone can do the same thing on its own.
Advances in translation and voice control technology in coming years will be much more exciting than what Google Pixel Buds offer today.