Stepping off the plane in Russia for the first time in 2013, I collided with a wall of blunt language and was intrigued beyond repair. Five years, countless classes and ten visits to Moscow later, I still claim a distinctly below-average capacity for the Russian tongue and its dense, foreboding components. To fill these gaps ahead of my next adventure abroad, I turned to technology.
Late last year, Brooklyn’s Waverly Labs released the Pilot ($ 299, waverlylabs.com), one of several new intelligent earpieces that attempt to instantaneously translate foreign speech. These eavesdropping devices use a cloud-based machine learning technology to pipe dozens of different languages into your brain in your mother tongue.
When synced with its app, Pilot’s oversized wireless earbuds — think Apple Airpods on steroids — work in “Converse” and “Listen” modes. “Converse” requires that the person you’re chatting up also install the app on his or her device, letting both of you hear the translated exchange and see it in text on your device’s screen like an internet chat. To me, this seems too high a barrier for real-world practicality: How likely is a voluble Russian stranger to install an app because I asked him to, much less share my crusty earbuds?
“Listen” mode, meanwhile, smartly uses Pilot’s noise-cancelling mics to convert speech to text instantly. After you select input and output languages, Pilot listens in, doing its best to provide a real-time translation in your ear and on your screen. But when I tested the mode with native speakers at the Russian House in Austin, Texas (a restaurant complete with Stalin nesting dolls and “Slavic Soul Nights”), it was easily flummoxed by the post-Soviet pop anthems playing in the background. Its performance improved only after the manager, Dima, turned the sound system off — suggesting that Pilot would flounder in thumping Moscow nightclubs.
I had to speak in a loud, forced manner to accommodate Pilot’s computers, rather than the people in front of me. And Dima showed me just how quickly and easily he could verbally dictate a full-speed Russian phrase into Google Translate using his smartphone — no earpiece required.
Translation gadgets like the Pilot, along with Google’s Pixelbuds ($ 159, store.google.com) and the Bragi Dash Pro (about $ 400, bragi.com) are hard tech devices with a hippie subtext, smelling of a world united by shared realities. Misunderstandings and incorrect translations are too common with these gadgets, but the category should improve significantly soon as A.I. and machine learning technology ramps further into the mainstream. That wall of impenetrable language is beginning to show its cracks. These devices may help us finally break through.