Google’s Pixel Buds promise to do, digitally, what rows of United Nations interpreters have been doing for decades: pipe into your ears a native-tongue translation—in real time—of a foreign language. Welcome to the future.
When they’re not in your ears, the $159 Buds store (and charge) in a fuzzy little case the size of a good macaroon. The actual earpieces are connected with an 18-inch-long, fabric-wrapped lanyard and they look and feel a lot like small wine-bottle stoppers. If you’re a devout audiophile or just a tech journalist who tests Bluetooth earbuds by the fistful, you may find issues with the mid-range lows or low-range highs or whatever audio-nerds haggle over on Reddit, but really, the Pixel Buds sound pretty terrific, even on noisy city streets and the subway. And unlike wine-bottle stoppers, they feature capacitive touch panels, through which fingertip taps or swipes allow you to engage various phone functions without smudging up your phone. With a tap and hold gesture, the Google Assistant will prick up its ears, awaiting voice requests for everything from traffic conditions to text messaging. It’s all good and easy to use and mostly similar to the skillset of Apple’s also-$159 Bluetooth ’buds, AirPods.
The real gimmick here, however, and the only reason AFAR is reviewing smartphone earbuds, is the Pixel Buds’ language translation feature. And it’s a nerdgasm. The Google Translate smartphone app allows the earbuds to deftly manage translation services for 40 languages, from Afrikaans to Vietnamese. The feature works only through Google’s own Pixel 1 and 2 smartphones; for our test, we put our fingerprints all over Google’s covetable new flagship phone, the Pixel 2 XL.
The operation is simple. Tap and hold the right-side Bud and say some variation of the phrase, “Help me speak Swahili.” The chatty Google Assistant will then launch the Google Translate app. From there, tap and hold the right Bud again and say, “Will you direct me to the bathroom?” The phone then promptly chirps out, “Je, unisaidia kupata bafuni?” Reverse the process to get your answer, translated. Of course, all this sorcery requires a decent cell signal because the translation happens in the cloud, where you can bet Google will mine your queries for keywords, which it will later use to sell you stuff. Consider that the price of free.
Does it work? We’ll give it a generous yes: It does work—almost spookily well. The whole tap-hold-talk-repeat process is a little clumsy—definitely better at one-line exchanges than coffee talk—and the Google Assistant will get politely discombobulated if you tap when you should be talking or talk when you should be holding or hold when you should be tapping. But that’s just user error. Fact is, the thing works: I do know how to ask for a toilet in Tanzania.
Of note is a Google Translate app feature that has no relation to the Pixel Buds, but which is at least as helpful as the earpieces’ verbal connectivity: Using the smartphone’s camera, the app can visually translate street signs, menus, and other printed materials. It’s simple and instantaneous, and although the translated versions are often grammatically suspect, you’ll get the gist. It’s also worth mentioning that the Translate app has the ability to pump out voice interpretations in both directions without Pixel Buds, and that, for travelers requiring only occasional interpretation, will prove a perfectly workable solution. You just won’t look as stylin’.
So where does that leave us with the Pixel Buds? Well, this writer—for the record, an unabashed nerd whose fondest childhood daydream was a dorky 1980s homebuilt robot called Hero—is struggling. On the one hand, I am duly dazzled by the tech-magic at work here; there’s just no denying it: This stuff is Star Trek cool. On the other hand, as a longtime sink-or-swim experiential traveler, I find myself philosophically opposed to this sort of digital language interpretation, for there is something distressingly unearned about it all. Just as we have yielded the roads and sidewalks to travelers who, for want of the most basic paper-map skills, require a turn-by-turn navigation to get themselves around, we will yield the world to global travelers who, for want of even tourist-phrasebook language skills, will lean on a cloud-connected multilingual machine to do the talking for them. Has technology made us better travelers or just lazier?
As they always do, the early adopters will work out the kinks in the technology, occasionally embarrassing themselves with waiters in Paris and tuk-tuk drivers in Bangkok. And the Pixel Buds will improve. They’ll get even slicker and quicker-witted; they’ll get smaller and more intuitive; they might even get cheaper. Gaps will be bridged and dim sum will be ordered and public bathrooms will be found. And for better or worse, traveling—and travelers—will change.
How you feel about that is your business. And Google’s.