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Picture yourself so far into the future that you think the technology available to you can only be possible in Sci-Fi movies. Your car can fly, your laundry washes, your dinner cooks itself, and you can communicate with anyone regardless of the language they speak. We have come a long way in developing time-saving technologies, and even though we can’t do most of those things yet, with the exciting new technologies available to us today, you actually can communicate with people who speak different languages without ever learning to speak a new language.
Thanks to the hard work at Google and Baidu, fast and reliable translations are happening through the use of Pixel Buds (Metz, 2018). The use of technology to translate a person’s speech may not be a brand new thing, but this particular upgrade takes communication to a different level. In the past, people have used things like the conversation apps supported by Google Translate to speak into their phones and translate what they say into another language (Metz, 2018).
However, phone apps pick up on many noises, not simply the sound of the person who is talking, and that can cause things to be literally “lost in translation.” Background noises can be very distracting to an app listening for voices, so now Google has upped their game by creating a translating technology device that will eliminate background noise and make for a more accurate translation. “One person wears the earbuds, while the other holds a phone. The earbud wearer speaks in his or her language-English is the default-and the app translates the talking and plays it aloud on the phone.
The person holding the phone responds; this response is translated and played through the earbuds.” (Top Breakthrough Technologies for 2018, n,d.). Does it sound too good to be true? Is it really that different than a conversation app?
Creators of this new technology believe that they have really made breakthroughs with these new earbuds. Unlike the preexisting conversation apps, where people can talk at the same time and background noise can be detected, Pixel Buds give control to the people talking and allow them to be able to look at one another when speaking. This is an important piece of communication that is often lost when a person is worried that they won’t understand what a person is saying, or how to tell them something in a way that they will understand (Top Breakthrough Technologies for 2018, n.d.). Just as we would speak to someone who knows the same language as us, these earbuds give the opportunity for one person to talk at a time and help to make communicating with a person in another language a more seamless process. The person who is talking must activate the device by tapping and holding down a button on the earbud. The microphone is controlled by the taps, so that the technology can focus on only one speaker at a time.
“The distinguishing feature of Pixel Buds is their inclusion of the Google Assistant, a smart voice assistant.” (Google Pixel Buds, 2018) Using Google Assistant allows the device “to translate conversations in real-time” (Google Pixel Buds, 2018). This is an important update to other translating technologies because there is less wait time and can make conversations seem more natural. In the school setting, having translations happen in real-time would allow for students to keep up with the flow of a lesson and not feel like they are getting left behind because of their language barriers.
Another advantage of the Pixel Buds technology is the size of the device. They are lightweight, comfortable, and sit gently on the outside part of the wearer’s ear. The earbuds do not go directly into the earlobe, so they are more accessible to all people (Martonik, 2018).
The sound quality of the Pixel Bud earbuds is another advantage. Users have stated that there is very little background noise, and that compared to most Bluetooth headphones, users preferred the sound quality of these earbuds more. (Martonik, 2018).
Pixel Buds are currently compatible with over 40 different languages (Tarantola, 2017). Having the ability to translate so many different languages is an advantage because the earbuds will be able to service many more people. Instead of simply picking the most common languages, Google has tried to reach a large number of people from all different parts of the world. I expect that as this technology evolves, additional languages will be added to the software.
The battery life of the Pixel Buds was listed as one of the top features of the product. One reviewer stated that he “made it through my entire week in Mexico without plugging them in. Just casually using them for an hour or two here and there, swapping between my phone and MacBook, I never had to pause to charge when I’d prefer to be listening” (Martonik, 2018). He went on to say that Google claims their product can be used for up to 5 hours of interrupted use without needing to charge the earbuds (Martonik, 2018). Most situations wouldn’t call for such a long period of listening/translating, so for quick, everyday conversations, the earbuds should make it through the day without needing to be charged.
The Pixel Bud earbuds use a technology called ‘Fast Pair’ to link personal devices to this new technology. One user stated that the, “Bluetooth Fast Pair feature is fantastic. Open the Pixel Buds case, unlock your phone, and with a tap you’re paired. It’s absolutely wonderful, and it removes one of the biggest pain points of Bluetooth headphones.” (Martonik, 2018).
In a practical setting, a person you are speaking with may not want to wait for you to get out a set of earbuds, connect them to your phone, ask the device to start the translation services, and then start the actual conversation (Martonik, 2018). The process can take a little bit of time, and it’s not quite a natural interaction, so it will feel a little disconnected at times.
As stated above, people don’t normally wear headphones when they are engaging in conversation with another person. For the most part, wearing headphones is the universal sign for “I don’t want to be bothered right now.” When a person wears headphones it gives the impression that they are already involved in something else, so starting a conversation like that is an obstacle to overcome.
If the person speaking or listening to the conversation hasn’t connected to the earbuds through Bluetooth services, they won’t be able to use the product. Unlike an app you can open at any time, you must have Bluetooth capabilities turned on, you must be connected to the Pixel Buds on your personal cell phone, and you must use your personal cell phone to play back the translation. Another possible disadvantage would be that users may have a phone that is not compatible with the device. “Pixel or Android phone(s) running Android 7.0 Nougat or higher with the Assistant” are able to connect to the earbuds (Champy, 2017).
To be able to use the device, you must click on the right earbud. The speaker needs to tap once to start the device and connect with the Google Assistant, and then hold the button in to say what you want to do. For example, if you were in a restaurant, you could tap once and say, “Help me speak Chinese,” and then hold the button down while ordering, and the earbuds will translate what you say into Chinese. The problem with that is the device’s “reliance on touch controls for every interaction. There’s a single tap for play/pause, a double tap for advanced functions, a press-and-hold for Assistant, and a swipe forward/back for volume control … all on a tiny earbud that doesn’t fit firmly in your ear. It’s a recipe for frustration, and even with how long I’ve used the Pixel Buds I haven’t been able to get it to work consistently” (Martonik, 2018). Getting the right touch pattern down with 100% accuracy is a challenge, and this can cause for delays in translations.
The translation doesn’t happen as seamlessly as the product promises. “The first hurdle is that the Pixel Buds of course aren’t doing any of the translation themselves — they’re simply a Bluetooth audio conduit to your connected Pixel phone running the Google Translate app” (Martonik, 2018). This user explains that the technology behind the translations is a very awkward process, and although these earbuds are pretty quick with what they give for a response, the technology cannot decipher a person’s “nuance, slang and sentence structure” with 100% accuracy, so things are sometimes literally lost in translation (Martonik, 2018). He explains that “Google Translate still breaks languages down to their most common sentences, leaving you and other person both sounding like they’re speaking like a 10-year-old kid. That isn’t inherently an issue with the Pixel Buds, but it does create one more barrier to this promised experience of smooth, natural translation on the fly” (Martonik, 2018).
The Pixel Buds cost $159. This price is not unreasonable, but because the technology is new, and there are some kinks to iron out, the price tag may serve as a caution to some. Technology is constantly changing, and as these earbuds are tested out and used in real-world settings, changes will be made to make them more user-friendly and to correct problems that will be reported to the company. At this price point, I think that most of the consumers will be high income individuals who like to travel, whether it be for business or pleasure. A low income family that needs to communicate with their child’s school may not have the means to buy a device like this simply to translate their speech into another language, or vice versa.
The influx of ESL learners in schools has been evident in all schools across the nation. More and more students who speak English as a second language, or not at all, are coming to schools where English is the only language spoken. Communicating with these students can be quite a challenge, and students and teachers are both struggling to have meaningful conversations. The Pixel Buds could serve as a way to have short conversations with students. An ESL student may know the basics and may be able to say things like, “Hello,” or “My name is Tatiana,” in English, but they may not know how to ask for help on the specific homework assignment they are working on. With these earbuds, students could ask the question in their native language, and it could be translated to their teacher. The teacher’s response would come back to the student in the language they speak, thus allowing the child to ask and answer questions like their classmates.
Although simple interactions like asking for help would be easier and quicker to translate, a teacher could allow students to have the earbuds on during a lesson so that the student would be able to have the lecture translated in real-time and would not have to miss out on the instruction the teacher is giving. Earbuds would need to be properly charged and linked to devices in the classroom for this to be possible, but it could help students to be a more active members of the classroom learning environment.
Much like communicating with an individual student, teachers could use the Pixel Buds to communicate with the families of their ESL learners. Some students have family members who do not speak the language of the school they attend at all. These family members are not aware of what is going on in the classroom, how their child is progressing, and what things they might need help with. Using a device like the Pixel Buds to communicate with these families could really help a student to be successful in the classroom, as well as allow the families to feel like they can help their student in a setting that is unfamiliar or challenging for them.
Students and families will feel more connected to the school if there is someone who understands their language and communicates with them in that same language. It is crucial that families and schools work together collaboratively to best help a child learn, and language barriers can really prevent this type of collaboration from happening. Using the earbuds to record messages to send to parents in a text or email, may be an idea to reach parents in a way that is more accessible to them. Some parents may not have time to read a newsletter or email, but they may have time to listen to a message during their morning drive or while they get ready for their day. Recording the translated messages would also serve as a great way for parents to refer back to what was said at a later time.
Students who use the Pixel Buds would be able to work collaboratively with students they otherwise wouldn’t be able to communicate with. This would allow ESL students to meet more students, form relationships with new students, and make them feel like they are a part of the classroom community. Many ESL learners feel isolated in their classroom settings and they don’t always feel like they are a contributing member to their classes. The use of these earbuds would help to eliminate some of that isolation and encourage more peer-to-peer interactions and relationships.
Many schools need to pay translators to come to after school events and parent-teacher conferences so that all parties involved can communicate with one another. This is costly for the district and sometimes problematic because a translator may not be available at the time a family or teacher needs to communicate a message. The Pixel Buds could allow families and staff to set up times to meet and discuss issues that are convenient for all the people involved in those meetings.
After researching this emerging technology, I am excited to see the advances that are made in incorporating translating devices into classrooms and schools. Although this particular product was not designed for a school setting, I really think that it could be used in that setting eventually. This device is new, and it’s not yet perfected, but it shows me that we have really come along way with the ideas that are being created in the field of technology every day. The things that are possible with technology are endless and after researching Pixel Buds, I am excited to see how these earbuds evolve over time. I would love to get the chance to use these earbuds in my own classroom, and hope that I could use this technology, or something similar, to help a struggling learner in the process.
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