The dream of in-ear real-time translation goes back at least as far as Douglas Adams’s Babel Fish, a little alien that fits in a human ear, feeds on brain waves and, miraculously, excretes translations into the ear canal. At an event in October, Google introduced its new Pixel Buds, which appeared to turn Adams’s fantasy into a reality. When paired with a compatible Android smartphone, the earphones provide instantaneous computer-generated language translation. The demo drew rave reviews from the technology press. “Google’s Pixel Buds translation will change the world,” screamed the headline at Engadget. “Pixel Buds are probably the most important gadget Google launched,” offered Mashable. “Can Google’s Pixel Buds be used in post-Brexit trade negotiations?” asked the Telegraph.
Nope, nope, and nope. Google Translate, which powers the Pixel Buds, is undoubtedly a fantastic piece of technology. I used it extensively in Beijing last month to identify food on menus, show people addresses I was looking for and communicate with taxi drivers. The Google Translate app will render pictures of mysterious foreign characters into English (or many other languages); its real-time audio function will speak out a translation. Without it I would probably still be circling the third ring road trying to find my hotel.
With the Pixel Buds, Google has taken this remarkable tech and ruined it. In a taxi in Beijing, I hunched over a phone awkwardly held between the driver and me and spoke loudly and clearly so the speech-recognition software could understand me. When he understood my request, he did the same. As we grew comfortable with this form of communication, our exchange moved on from functional matters like directions and price to more natural conversations about where I had come from, what I was doing in China, how he ended up driving in Beijing, and so on. Pretty soon we had forgotten that our conversation was mediated by a piece of technology.
Now take that interaction, which was so seamless that in my memory the conversation took place entirely in English, and add another stage. In place of a shared phone, which allows both participants to hear everything, give one participant a set of earphones that act as a technological barrier. Worse, force the person wearing the earphones to touch one ear when they respond, like some sort of discount secret service agent. When I tried it with colleagues at work, everybody involved felt a bit ridiculous. I had sound in my ears, but also from the person in front of me. He did not know when I was listening to a translation, so didn’t know when to speak and when to keep silent. Instead of looking into his eyes, I resorted to looking at the ceiling to indicate that I was momentarily unavailable. The whole thing was ghastly.
Still, I’m no slouch when it comes to humiliation. I took the Pixel Buds to Buckow, in Brandenburg in eastern Germany, with the intent of trying them out in the wild. Reader, they remained in my bag. This is not, therefore, a conventional product review. It is a small contribution to the vast corpus of complaints about what happens to product design when an engineer’s focus on problem solving blinds them to the norms of social interaction. However effective a gadget is, it will fail if it makes its user feel like a chump.
It is bad enough that mobile-phone signal when roaming in the EU can often be spotty (the translation service needs internet connectivity to work). It is worse that Germans possess an inherent distrust of Silicon Valley firms so asking them to speak into a phone while you’re wearing earphones is an invitation for abuse. But worst of all is the sheer awkwardness of the whole thing: hang on a second while I put in these ridiculous things, fire up the app, make sure everything’s synced up, and then speak into my phone while holding it up to your ear, bitte, just so I can hear your response in my own ear.
Danke, but nein danke. This is not how human beings interact with each other. It is telling that this product comes from the same people who brought us Google Glass, an ugly, invasive face-mounted camera that evoked hostility wherever it was worn.
Perhaps this might have worked in China, where the embrace of technology is enthusiastic (I was laughed at in one café for trying to pay by card.) But even there, I suspect, the weird dynamics of the interaction would have made the things impractical. Google makes a big deal about the earphones’ lack of complete noise insulation, arguing that allowing the outside world in helps communication. Maybe. But that is still a one-way street – to others, you still have these giant things in your ears, signalling that you are in a world of your own. Besides, it is normally common politeness to remove earphones when speaking to someone. Only people of supreme self-importance keep them in when ordering coffee.
Moreover, the one-sided nature of information availability – the translated version of my interlocutor’s words is played through the buds in my ears so that only I can hear them, while the translated version of my words is played through the phone’s speaker so that everyone can hear them – gives me a subtle but noticeable power advantage. That is not a good way to make new friends. (One reason Google’s demo may have wowed the audience is that it broadcast both sides – or all four sides – of the conversation over loudspeakers.)
Should you buy the Pixel Buds for their sound quality, or their access to Google Assistant, or as an alternative to Apple’s Air Pods? I’ve no idea – look at the reviews. But should you prize technological aesthetics over ease of communication with someone else? If the answer to that question isn’t obvious, you should ask Google or consider a career there. It sounds like you’ll fit right in.