A pioneering language-translating earpiece

Enabling face-to-face conversation in 15 different languages, the Pilot translating earpiece turns sci-fi gadgetry into a – slightly glitchy – reality

Pilot, $299 to pre-order
Pilot, $299 to pre-order | Image: Hugh Threlfall

If you love gadgetry, imperfect first iterations are huge fun. They can also be, as potential precursors of whole new genres of tech, hugely important. So it is with the Pilot translating earpiece, which was regarded by many to be a hoax when it was first announced two years ago. A gadget you could place in one ear and use to converse face-to-face with someone else speaking a different language (who was also wearing a device) sounded too science fiction, even in the already pretty future-forward 2016. Star Trek, in which such gadgets featured, was set nominally in the 23rd century.

But Pilot is here; it’s by no means the finished article, but you can make it useful in the right circumstances. First caveat: the translation bubble you set up with another Pilot-attired user – in any one of 15 languages – is mobile phone dependent. The headsets themselves don’t house all the language software – it’s in the cloud. Second caveat: yes, I know you can do something like this with a phone running Google Translate, but I’ve found the Pilot software is faster and more accurate. Third caveat: the Pilot you buy today will be much better in a year or so, with software upgrades and additional languages – and there are also competing products coming over the horizon. 

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What I discovered is that having an interpreter works better with a language you don’t know a word of. I got into a tangle using Pilot in French and German, in which I can get by, because I could understand the gist before the precise translation came through my ear, and instinctively responded. Result: a mess, especially when the other person’s Pilot heard me reply in French or German and attempted to translate it back to me in English.

But if I were in a quiet room with someone who speaks only, say, Japanese or Hindi or Arabic, I could have a meaningful, even reasonably nuanced, one-on-one conversation. I tried Pilot with a Mandarin-speaking friend in a relatively noisy café and it worked much better than even tech-enthusiast me expected. A must-have for hardcore gadget lovers, then – just think of Pilot as technology in its very infancy, like the first mobile phone.

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