Could Google’s AR glasses break language barriers?

Earlier this month, Google gave the public a sneak peek at its latest piece of translation technology: a pair of augmented reality (AR) glasses that translates spoken language in real time.

While Google has yet to announce when the glasses will be available to the public, the glasses are equipped with Google Translate technology that will allow them to translate passages of speech from more than 30 languages (although the app translates written text between more than 130 languages, only 32 languages are available for spoken language).

Google has toyed with AR’s potential applications to the language technology sphere before. In 2015, it added a video text translation feature to its mobile app, allowing users to translate written text captured using their phone’s camera.

“Looking ahead, there’s a new frontier of computing, which has the potential to extend all of this even further, and that is AR,” Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai wrote in a blog post on May 11. “These AR capabilities are already useful on phones and the magic will really come alive when you can use them in the real world without the technology getting in the way.”

While the technology might seem like something out of a science fiction movie, Google’s AR glasses aren’t the only piece of technology that perform a similar function. At the beginning of this year, Waverly Labs upgraded its Ambassador technology, an in-ear automatic interpreting device that allows users to listen to — rather than read — translations of spoken language.

The company has also announced plans to add two other products to its suite, both of which provide automatic translations of spoken language in a similar vein to Google’s AR glasses (though neither comes in the form of wearable AR glasses).

While Google’s AR glasses appear promising, some pundits are skeptical — The Verges Antonio G. Di Benedetto and Mitchell Clark argued that the technology has a long way to go before it can truly work toward breaking language barriers in everyday conversation.

“If you’ve ever tried having an actual conversation through a translation app, then you probably know that you must speak slowly. And methodically. And clearly. Unless you want to risk a garbled translation,” the duo writes. “One slip of the tongue, and you might just be done.”

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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