Struggling to understand the locals when you expatriate could soon be a thing of the past, according to one US company. Waverly Labs has announced the creation of a wearable smart device which, according to its makers, can translate foreign languages with ‘only a couple of seconds of delay’. If true, this could go a long way to solving a key expat problem – integration – as well as making international work and business significantly easier.
So, what exactly is the Pilot, can it live up to expectations, and what are the benefits for expats?
According to Waverly Lab’s website, ‘the Pilot is the world’s first smart earpiece which translates between users speaking different languages’. The wearable Bluetooth tech features a small microphone for picking up speech as well as a speaker to relay the translations. Two people, both wearing the earpieces synced to a smartphone app, can communicate in their own tongue while hearing a translation of the other’s language.
It sounds incredibly science-fiction, with many news sites drawing links to the Babel fish featured in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or the translation technology of television shows such as Star Trek (although for real-time Klingon translation, you’ll have to stick with Skype Translate – yes, really). However, it seems that response to the technology has seen its features and capabilities becoming significantly overhyped. In response to claims that the Pilot will enable users to hear translations in real time, Waverly Labs founder Andrew Ochoa commented that, ‘We don’t want to make any promises or references that this is incredibly real-time or that we could give you an earpiece and drop you off in the middle of Tokyo. That is not what we’re trying to convey at all.’
While the speed of the translation may be the main issue up for debate (more on this later), the Pilot has been developed in order to allow people to break down the language barriers that prevent communication. The app will be capable of translating between English, French, Italian and Spanish on launch. There are further plans for African, Arabic, East Asian, Hindi, Semitic and Slavic languages at a later data, with these languages to be made available as additional purchase options.
Image copyright: Waverly Labs
It may be that much of the hype surrounding the device comes from exaggerated ideas of its capabilities, but even going off what the manufacturer alone has said, Pilot has some pretty big expectations to meet.
For starters, the device has to master two obvious, but complicated, skills; speech recognition and translation. There are apps on the market offering to do each separately, but few are perfect and there are even fewer attempting to do both. Microsoft’s Skype Translate is perhaps the most-high profile, allowing users to converse over video chat with the aid of a translated transcript of each other’s comments.
Most users will have come across speech recognition technology, whether in Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana virtual assistant, Google’s voice search, Amazon and Xbox Kinnect’s voice command functionality, or Nuance’s Dragon Naturally Speaking transcription software. Everyone is well aware that none of these is perfect, however, which creates the first barrier in accurately translating speech – if the software isn’t sure what you said in your native language, how will it be able to accurately translate it into a foreign tongue?
The second issue, as is commonly known, is that translation software can often fail; sometimes subtly, sometimes disastrously. Even if the app can recognise the words you speak, computers often fail to understand the nuances of language. This is especially true of a language like Mandarin, where a word can have multiple and vastly different meanings based on intonation. For instance, the word ‘ma’ means ‘mother’ when spoken with a high and level tone, but when enunciated with a falling, then rising, tone means ‘horse’. It’s obvious how a mistranslation here could cause offense.
Image copyright: Waverly Labs
In an ideal world, anyone planning a long-term move overseas will have learned the local language to near-fluency before they even left their home country. But languages can take hundreds, if not thousands, of hours to become fluent in. With your other daily commitments and the numerous things to arrange in order to relocate abroad, there often isn’t time to become as familiar with the language as you would like.
The Pilot could go a long way to solving this problem. You can use your own knowledge when in casual situations, or for straightforward tasks such as buying tickets for public transport or ordering at a restaurant, which usually require only a foundational knowledge of the local language. But for important conversations, such as overseas banking, talking to a solicitor, or arranging healthcare provisions, the Pilot could prove invaluable.
Buying a property could become less of a minefield as well. While you’ll always need estate agents and solicitors who are fluent in both the local language and laws, being able to understand the discussions that are taking place will help you stay more informed about what is happening. It can be an uncomfortable feeling to essentially put hundreds of thousands of Pounds in the hands of others, especially when you are relying on them to keep you informed. With accurate translation you’ll have a good idea of what is being said and can be more confident people aren’t trying to hide something from you.
For business owners, the Pilot could make it significantly easier to forge partnerships with overseas affiliates and suppliers. Business meetings could become much smoother and the ability to talk directly to one another is bound to make it easier to form a positive relationship than if having to speak through interpreters.
It is worth pointing out that the Pilot currently requires two earpieces linked to the same smart phone in order to work, or a second person speaking into the mobile on which the app is installed. However, there are plans for later iterations of the earpiece to be able to pick up speech from the same microphone that captures the wearer talking, meaning you could go anywhere with a compatible language and understand anyone who spoke to you. They would still need their own earpiece to understand you, of course, but considering the set comes with two, you could always have a spare on your person just in case.
With any new technology, there tends to be a wave of enthusiasm among early adopters that often sees the potential of the technology blown way out of proportion. We’ve already seen this happen with the Pilot, which is why the makers have intervened to try and calm expectations. As the first of its kind, the Pilot will have a lot to prove and could find it hard to live up to its claims. But regardless of its functionality, the Pilot is sure to be the first of many such devices. It’s not hard to envisage several different smart earpieces on the market in a few years’ time. Whatever shape they take and functionality they offer, it isn’t hard to see how such a device could quickly become a must-have for an expat or international business owner.
All images copyright of Waverly Labs
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