With the notable exception of selfie sticks and those big sunglasses with the camera in the frame, our gadgets have the potential to make us better travelers. They guide us through unfamiliar territory, lift us over language barriers, and help us commemorate and share our adventures. They can even ease the agony of seven hours in seat 37B. This month, three tech giants pulled the wraps off little gadgets with big promise for travelers. Do they live up to the hype? We’ll let you know when we put our hands on them in the coming weeks.
It’s been 10 years since Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled an electronic oddity called the Kindle at the W Hotel in New York’s Union Square. And although the world has seen an explosion of smartphones and tablets in the years since, the Kindle, with its paperlike screen and singular focus on the reading experience, persists. This week, the company unveiled a new version of its flagship Kindle, the Oasis. Improved in pretty much every way over its predecessor, the new model has a lighted E Ink display that’s 30 percent bigger, it offers support for audiobook playback via Bluetooth headphones, and—major news for beach-bound travelers—it’s waterproof. The new Oasis arrives in 8- and 32-gigabyte models with Wi-Fi connectivity ($250 and $280, respectively) and a 32-gigabyte model with a cellular connection ($350), useful for grabbing a last-second Grisham as the aircraft doors close.
You may be tempted to dismiss Google’s new Pixel Buds as little more than a ho-hum response to Apple’s oh-so-slick AirPods. They’re both wireless, they both use clever touch controls, and they’ll both get you from New York to L.A. on a single charge. But for the traveler, the $159 Pixel Buds make a mighty promise the AirPods can’t touch: real-time two-way language translation. Say “How are you?” in Copenhagen and your smartphone, via the Google Translate app, pipes out “Hvordan har du det?”; when your new friend responds “Ikke så dårligt, tak,” the earbuds deliver “Not so bad, thanks” right into your ears. Magic. For now, the trick only works with Google’s new Pixel 2 smartphone, but the company promises wider availability soon. It’s easy to imagine such a tool wholly transforming international travel. Unfortunately, it’s also easy to imagine a bunch of smartphone-wielding tourists yelling things like, “Wait! Say that again! Talk slower!”
The notion of a virtual reality headset with a simple handheld controller is hardly new. But such devices are usually expensive and tethered to a high-power PC or cheap and built around a high-end smartphone. The new Oculus Go—introduced earlier this week by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg—splits the difference rather remarkably. Derived from the pricy and elaborate Oculus Rift headset (Facebook purchased Oculus in 2014 for $2 billion), the Go is a full-on virtual reality package, complete with a high-resolution display, built-in headphones, and a small triggered controller, but it requires no PC or phone to provide the VR experience. The $199 system can leverage a growing library of games and virtual experiences and even act as a head-mounted movie theater. In short, the Oculus Go, which goes on sale next year, could become the ultimate in-flight entertainment platform—even if your seatmate won’t lower the damned window shade.