Review: WT2 Plus earbuds translate across 36 languages and 85 accents
The Babel fish, from Douglas Adams' magnificent Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, is one of those concepts that sticks in your mind. Much like the fish itself, really; in the book, it's a small yellow fish you poke into your ear that takes up residence and has the extraordinary ability to instantly translate whatever anyone around you says into your own language, no matter what galaxy they're from or what species they are.
With a Babel fish in your ear, the story goes, you can understand anyone else completely. Which you might think would be a wonderful thing for universal harmony, but Adams says that "by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, [it] has caused more and bloodier wars than anything in the history of creation." Ah well, you can't win 'em all.
Back in the non-fiction world. Humanity has been striving for a real-life Babel fish in the form of translation technology, and the rise of deep learning in recent years has seen machine translation develop in leaps and bounds. Recently, we've had our hands on a couple of nifty hand-held translation devices, but the WT2 Plus translation earbuds are the first we've sampled that sit right there in your ear like a Babel fish and attempt to allow real-time conversation without the need to press buttons.
From charmingly-named Chinese company Timekettle, the WT2 Plus is a pair of earbuds that's designed to be used by two different people. You pop one in your own ear, and give the other to your conversation partner. This puts noise-reducing, beamforming microphones close to both of your mouths, which helps isolate which of you is speaking, and it speeds up conversation by virtue of the fact that you don't have to stop talking while the WT2s are piping their translations into the other person's ear.
The WT2 set has three modes. There's Touch mode, in which you each take turns touching a button on your earbud to tell it you're talking. There's Speaker mode, in which you use an earbud and your conversation partner simply talks into your smartphone – handy for conversation partners whose ears look so dirty you wouldn't want your earbud back. And there's "Simul" mode, in which you attempt to have as normal a conversation as possible, and the earbuds scurry to try to keep up.
You do need to connect these things to your smartphone in order to use them, and the phone's screen turns out to be handy. You know the drill by now with online translation services; they can be hit and miss, both in how they've heard you and how they choose to translate you. So it's very handy having the screen in between you as you chat, so at least you can both see what the machine thinks you said before translation.
The WT2 software currently supports 36 different languages, but more interestingly it can also be set to account for some 84 different accents. There are 14 different accents for English alone, from Ireland to Singapore to Nigeria, for example (no Scottish, it'll be a cold day in hell before voice recognition software can untangle the words of a Glaswegian), and nearly 20 versions of Spanish, covering Spain itself and an assortment of Central and South American countries.
I was able to test the WT2 Plus system in conversation with a Chinese speaker, and in general the experience was pretty good, with the speaker's intent coming through clearly in most cases. Conversation in Simul mode is a definite step forward from pressing buttons on a hand-held device or fiddling with a smartphone, but the delay is still enough to make things feel disjointed, and it's hard to get much of an energy going. But it pays to remember, you're talking in two different languages and understanding each other, and that's some kind of magic.
It's not without its hitches, which begin almost straight away with the fact that these earbuds just don't fit very well in any of the ears I've tried them in. "Were these designed for giants?" my partner asked as they popped out for the tenth time. There's a set of over-ear loops included, designed to help combat this problem, but they have to be removed to fit the WT2s into their carry case, and, really, in this day and age, it shouldn't be too much of a challenge to design earpieces that fit in ears.
Secondly, the Simul mode cannot handle external noise. In our house, that's more or less constant in the form of two rug rats, who had to be shepherded out of the room before any kind of conversation became possible.
The third notable issue is that the WT2 system can only listen to one voice at a time, meaning that it will prioritize one of the speakers in a conversation. While that person is speaking, or the smartphone is translating, or a translation is being read out, it's not listening to you. That can make it hard to get a word in edgeways if you're not the one with the priority earbud. If you attempt to fix this issue by moving to Touch mode, the touch sensors on these earbuds can be tough to locate, and the "touch once to listen, touch again to translate" control scheme isn't massively intuitive.
Still, it's by no means bad, and if you construct your sentences properly (harder than you'd think in a casual conversation), the system translates and relays them well. I also appreciate the fact that conversation histories are stored separately and don't show up as you begin a new conversation.
If you have a second set and a powerful smartphone, these things are capable of translating across multiple languages simultaneously, with a maximum of four people plugged in. That would've been handy in one particular share house I remember living in some 20 years ago, full of French, German, Irish, Italian, Japanese and Australian drifters. We kept seven or eight different translation dictionaries in the living room, and while we certainly seemed to understand each other better the more we drank, a device like this could've turned us into the United Nations.
The WT2 Plus earbuds come in a rounded charging case that splits in half so you can give one half to your conversation partner and keep half for yourself. The case clicks together magnetically, in either closed or open orientations. It's a little big for a pocket and the shape is a touch unwieldy to balance on a flat surface, but it does the trick.
At US$239.99 per pair, the WT2 Plus translator earbuds are cheaper than standalone hand-held devices. On the other hand, they do require that your phone has a data connection, so if you're traveling, that's something you'll need to consider. Many of the standalone devices have built-in international SIM cards with data plans, which no doubt contributes to their higher prices.
Compared to the other devices I've tested, I would say the WT2 Plus earbuds work more than well enough to recommend them. With the earbuds in, you can spend less time looking at a device and more looking at who you're talking to, which feels like an important shift. Whichever online AI translation services Timekettle has chosen seem to do a solid job, at least in the language combinations I've tried.
Mind you, the chief competition these and other translation devices need to face off against really is the Google Translate app, which is free and works on pretty much any smartphone you already own, even if it doesn't sit in your ear. Translation-specific devices do offer a nicer experience, but it's hard to compete with free.
And zooming back, compared to the fictional Babel fish we're imagining will one day be possible, these kinds of devices are still in their infancy. There's a lot of waiting, bits of sentences get cut off, and sometimes you flat out get mis-heard. So, while they can definitely open doors to verbal communication across cultures, hopefully they won't start any intergalactic wars.
Source: Timekettle WT2 Plus