On Wednesday, Google held its annual hardware event and unveiled its newest Pixel 2 and Google Home, among other products. But it was an item revealed late in the presentation that might have been the most mind-blowing.
Google’s Pixel Buds, which are essentially the company’s answer to Apple’s AirPods, are earbuds that connect to a smartphone — in this case, the Pixel 2 — via Bluetooth. At $159, they’re priced exactly the same as Airbuds.
Once you’ve paired the phones to the handset, you can simply tap the right earpiece and issue a command to Google Assistant on the Pixel 2. You can have it play music, give you directions, place a phone call, etc. But, because they pair with the Pixel smartphone, and thus Google’s software, the headphones can do something Apple’s headphones can’t do: Translate spoken language in real time.
The operation is performed using Google Translate, which is built into the Google Pixel 2. If you say “Help me speak Japanese” and then start speaking in English, the phone’s speakers will output your translated words as you speak them. The other party’s reply (presumably in Japanese) will then play into your ear through the Pixel Buds.
Google demoed the technology in action on Wednesday, and the earbuds quickly translated a conversation between English and Swedish about 1 to 2 seconds after the people finished their sentences — to much applause from the audience. We’ll have to see how well that performance holds up in the real world with wonky WiFi connections, background noise and crosstalk.
The platform operates in 40 different languages. That’s essentially like having a translator that can speak in 1,600 different language combinations right in your ear. This technology could fundamentally change how we communicate across the global community.
The Pixel Buds can be used with the iPhone too, but only Pixel owners will be able to use the tools like Translate and the Google Assistant. Google says these features should come to other phones too, eventually. For now, Google wants to keep this feature on its own Pixel 2 phones while it works the kinks out.
The earbuds don’t have any buttons — you can adjust the volume by swiping left or right over the grey surface of the earbud, and swiping left and right changes the song if you’re playing music. If you press down on the earbud, it invokes the Google Assistant. If you let go of the button, the Assistant stops listening.
The earbuds connect to your phone wirelessly, but they are tethered together by a cloth-like cord. The device comes in a rechargeable case, and according to a blog post on Google’s site, the earbuds can play music for about 24 hours without needing a charge. It also comes in the same colors as the Pixel 2: white, black and blue.
The Pixel Buds will be available in November, conveniently just in time for your holiday shopping.
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