In-Ear Translators: How do They Work and What are the Best Ones Available?

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Instant universal translators have been a science fiction staple for as long as the genre has been around. After all, how else is a human going to communicate with an alien speaking a fictional language? Not only do these translators have to recognize any type of language, but they also need to be small and portable enough to fit our swashbuckling hero.

Strides in technology have been made in the last couple of years that bring us a few steps closer to making this piece of science fiction a reality. Are in-ear translators a thing now? How well do they work? Which are the best ones that you can buy right now?

How do in-ear translators work?

For an in-ear translator to be considered a successful product, it must satisfy three conditions: be accurate, provide real-time translation, and be portable. This means that it must provide a faster and easier alternative to the time-honored tradition of passing a phone with a translator app back and forth.

How exactly does an in-ear translator work? The specifics of the process may vary across different products (and some steps can be skipped entirely), but the fundamentals are basically the same. All in-ear translators process data using this sequence of steps:

1. Input conditioning

As with any software that relies on verbal commands, an in-ear translator needs to be able to filter out ambient noise and isolate the voice of the user. This feature needs to be refined so that the in-ear translator doesn’t end up picking up the words of every random bystander. How an in-ear translator implement noise filtering depends on the manufacturer.

2. Language recognition

Before an in-ear translator can process words and phrases through its translation algorithm, it needs to be able to identify the original language of the user. This is one of the most critical steps of language translation as it needs to happen instantaneously to ensure that there are no missed words. Differentiating between languages can be especially difficult when similar-sounding languages are involved, such as the Slavic languages.

3. Speech recognition

As with any speech recognition device, in-ear translators convert recorded words, breaks them down into phonemes, and re-assembles them to look for words that the software recognizes. This feature needs to work across different accents and pronunciations. In the case of grammar errors and conversation gaps, the software has to be “smart” enough to fill in the gaps or make the appropriate corrections.

4. Language processing

The very core of every translator software, the language processing algorithm of a good in-ear translator doesn’t just translate phrases word by word. It needs to consider context and grammar to form a translated phrase or sentence that makes sense and preserves the intention of the original. This is a very complex operation that typically relies on a machine learning process using a database of common phrases and sentences in both the original and translated languages.

5. Speech synthesis

The final step of the process, this step converts the translated phrase or sentence into an audio output. Modern translators have made it their goal to make the audio output sound as natural as possible, and this is done by collecting recordings of people properly pronouncing certain words or phonemes.

What are the limitations of in-ear translation technology?

Despite the market for in-ear translators getting extremely competitive in the last couple of years, the technology is still far from perfect.

1. Limited language database

With more than 6000 spoken languages worldwide, there is no single language translation platform that even comes close to being ‘universal.’ Even a big tech company like Google can only recognize and translate 100 pre-determined languages. This number is relatively high, with smaller brand limiting their database to between 40 to 60 of the most common languages. If you’re going to the remotest parts of the world, don’t expect your in-ear translator to help you out.

2. Only works one-way

A glaring limitation of any translator technology is that it only works one-way. If you have an in-ear translator, you might be able to understand what the person you’re talking to is saying, but the reverse is not going to happen. The likely outcome is that you’ll be passing your in-ear translators to the other person in a move akin to passing off phones with translator apps.

A real two-way conversation between people speaking different languages will only be possible if both of them have in-ear translators. Right now, this feels like a scenario that’s unlikely to happen.

What are the best in-ear translators available today?

1. Google PixelBuds

Google PixelBuds

It seems obvious to start with the most high-profile in-ear translator available today, the PixelBuds from Google. This product created a lot of buzz back in 2017 when it was first announced. Although the hype has died down since then, the PixelBuds is still one of the leaders in a market that is still struggling to find its footing.

The biggest advantage of the PixelBuds is that it relies on the well-established Google Translate platform for language recognition and translation. Google Translate is a free app, one that almost everybody has on their phone. If the PixelBuds have been paired to your phone, all you need to do to bring Google Translate up is to speak the verbal prompt “Ok Google, help me speak….”, specifying which language you’d like to translate to.

The integrated microphone of the earbuds will pick up your words, send them over to the Translate app on your phone, which can then display or play the audio of the translated phrase. It can work two-way, albeit, the process isn’t so smooth. The person you’re talking to can speak to your phone, and you’ll hear the translated audio through the PixelBuds.

While this is quite effective for a two-way conversation, it has often been remarked that it will work almost just as well even without the PixelBuds. More than anything, this is a testament to how effective and easy to use the Google Translate mobile app is.

The Google PixelBuds can, of course, be used just like any other earbuds. Whether you’re listening to a podcast or your favorite playlist, you can get up to 5 hours of continuous listening time on the PixelBuds on a single charge. You can also access Google Assistant via the PixelBuds using the standard ‘Hey Google’ prompt.

Although the Google PixelBuds offers one of the smoothest real-time translation experiences in the market today, there are still certain aspects of it that are not so convincing. However, they are still a good buy if you really want the convenience that an in-ear translator offers. Another good thing about the PixelBuds is that it’s not expensive.

2. Bragi Dash Pro

Bragi Dash Pro

The Bragi Dash Pro isn’t exactly marketed as an in-ear translator. As wire-free earphones, it’s already an excellent product with good noise-cancelling and pass-through features. They are comfortable and secure enough to be used while exercising.

If you intend to use the Bragi Dash Pro as an in-ear translator, you first need to download the iTranslate app on your phone. This is the biggest criticism of the Bragi Dash Pro – you need to pay for a monthly subscription to use the iTranslate app. Since the in-ear translation isn’t likely to be something you’re going to need everyday or even at regular intervals, the idea of charging for a monthly subscription (instead of a one-time payment) seems unwise. It also contrasts with the fact that there already a lot of translation resources available online for free.

Point aside, how’s the performance of the iTranslate app? Again, having a two-way conversation between two people speaking different languages can only happen seamlessly if both of them have the Bragi Dash Pro earbuds. Otherwise, the process will look very similar to how it’s done with the Google PixelBuds. The person wearing the Bragi Dash Pro speaks, which the phone translates and plays audio for, while the other person speaks into the phone so that the translated phrase can be heard over the earbuds. It’s still an awkward process, and Bragi Dash Pro doesn’t offer a new solution.

In terms of the quality of translation, the iTranslate app performs really well. There may be a few syntax and grammar issues, but nothing that’s so drastic that the message cannot be understood. The iTranslate app can also be used as a standalone app without the Bragi Dash Pro earbuds.

3. Waverly Labs Pilot Translating Earpiece

Waverly Labs Pilot Translating Earpiece

Despite not being made by a company named Google, Waverly Labs was able to raise $5 million through Indiegogo for the development of their Pilot in-ear translator. With so many pledges, expectations were understandably high for this product. For the most part, the Pilot did not disappoint. These earbuds looked great, offered a different workflow, and had well-functioning translation capabilities.

As with the other entries in the list, real-time translation using the Pilot can only be done through companion Pilot Speed Translation mobile app. The language database is pretty small – only 15 languages and 42 dialects are supported – but we expect it to grow as the Pilot gets more users.

The translation function works in either of two modes: Listen or Conversation. In Listen Mode, all you need to do is to listen to the translated phrases from someone who is speaking to you. It’s a simple, straightforward function that is sorely missing from other in-ear translators.

The real highlight of the Pilot translator is the Conversation Mode. In this mode, two people can share a single pair of Pilot earbuds to facilitate a two-way conversation. It will also require two phones, both of which have the Pilot Speed Translation app. One phone will be paired to the right earbud, while the other phone will be paired to the left earbud. Using this mode, both people can talk in their native languages and can hear the translated phrase from the other person through the earbuds.

While this workflow presents something different and is certainly innovative, the time it takes to set it up can be the biggest hindrance to its widespread use. Between having to install the app on the other person’s phone and pairing the one earbud, it can take a few minutes before you can even start talking. There’s also the fact that sharing earbuds isn’t exactly something that people commonly do. Whether it’s due to hygiene and safety concerns, we can imagine many people aren’t exactly eager to share their earbuds with strangers.

In summary, the new workflow that Bragi has developed for a fully translated conversation is a welcome innovation. In some cases, it might work. It just requires quite a bit of patience from the parties involved. While it has its shortcomings, it has still been a step in the right direction.

Final thoughts

With a heated market for in-ear translators, it might just be a matter of time between science fiction becomes a reality. In-ear translators have the potential to break down language barriers, which can only be a good thing for every single country and nationality in the world. People can travel anywhere and conduct business with anyone without having to be hindered by differences in language.

In the past years, a lot of in-ear translator products have been developed and released. It hasn’t quite caught on yet due to a couple of issues. The technology isn’t perfect, and the workflow still needs a bit of refinement. However, the massive value of such a technology practically assures that companies will continue to work for its improvement. When that day comes, we’ll be first in line.