In-ear Tech Aims to Translate Spoken Foreign Language in Real Time

A World Without Language Barriers Waverly Labs
A World Without Language Barriers Waverly Labs

In the novel "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," translating unfamiliar languages meant stuffing a leech-like banana-colored fish into one's ear called the Babel Fish. Now a company claims to have invented a hearing-aid-sized device that will perform the same translating functions for spoken foreign language.

The Pilot is wearable technology that fits in the ear and translates between users speaking different languages. The device, which works offline and internationally, is accompanied by an app that can toggle between languages, but the idea is to allow people to converse with each other directly without the aid — or distraction — of looking at a dictionary, smartphone or other electronic language translator. Currently, the Pilot translates between English, French, Spanish and Italian. Future languages are expected to include Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic and other African and Asian languages.


"I have pretty good skills in Spanish and Mandarin, but for other languages like Thai, Vietnamese, Russian, and French — just can't wrap my head around the tones in French — I'd use the hell out of a thing like that," says Cate Smith-Brubaker, a journalist and travel writer. "So many avoided frustrations, I'd get the food I actually want, and I could meet and become friendly with so many more people!"

The Pilot devices, which went on sale in late May for an estimated fall 2017 delivery, cost up to $299. The first generation of in-ear translators only work when both people in a conversation are wearing the devices. However, the New York-based company behind the translator, Waverly Labs, said it plans to release future generations that will translate independently of a sister device.

The application for a device like this is immense. Imagine being in a region where you don't speak the language and being able to request a restroom, drink or directions. 

Or, as product inventor and Waverly CEO Andrew Ochoa discovered, improve more complex interpersonal communication. Ochoa said the idea for the universal translator came to him "after meeting a French girl" with whom he could not communicate clearly.

"It's the dream, you know? A life untethered, free of language barriers," Ochoa says in a company video. "It's just that it's no longer a dream anymore. It's real."

Johanna Read, a travel writer who visited six continents last year, agrees. "It would be lovely to respond with a smile to a comment that I understand," she says, "rather than just pretend to understand."

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Waverly Labs plans to release the Pilot in-ear translator in multiple colors.
Waverly Labs

While Waverly Labs is quick to tout the product's attributes, it's slow to release details of its inner workings. The company initially pointed to vague "translation technology" embedded in the device's accompanying app. The process, however, is believed to require a clear signal from the Pilot's built-in microphone that is then converted from speech to text in both speakers' languages. The text is then thought to run through an online translation engine like those of Google or Microsoft before being converted from text back to speech and relayed into the wearer's earpiece.

If the newly debuted Pilot seems familiar, it's probably because science fiction did it first. Star Trek characters have been using a universal translator from the outset of the series, allowing them to understand any language they encounter. Well, almost any language. The nuances of Klingon can sometimes get lost in translation.