The XRAI Glass Augmented-Reality System

The glasses that will be your eyes and ears

To invent a system to help deaf people fully understand and follow a conversation is a pretty noble aim.

To give them something close to hearing superpowers, which is what this software from a British start-up called Xrai Glass comes close to, is … Well, what can we say?

It was quite an emotional moment for your columnist, who has good hearing, to experience it in action. “Assistive technology,” as this kind of thing is called, really should be one of the principal aims of technologists, not giving the world the ability to post cat videos to millions.

The reaction of some deaf people who have tried the equipment—such as Justin Osmond, a scion of the Osmond singing family—has been ecstatic. The founder of one charity that is focused on access to education, DeafKidz International, has gone so far as to say, “I truly believe there will be a pre-Xrai and post-Xrai timestamp that we will be able to reference in the coming years.”

Xrai Glass, as the makers succinctly proclaim, “turns speech into subtitles, in real time.” The user wears a pair of not-uncool-looking, dark augmented-reality glasses and sees everything being said around him or her in clear text in the lenses. There’s a delay of a half a second or so, and the accuracy isn’t quite perfect, but it works.

But what do we mean by “superpowers”? Well, Xrai Glass doesn’t only understand and subtitle in your own language, so long as that’s English, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, or Italian—it also translates between them.

Think about it: you, a deaf person, could be the only one in a group able to understand the Japanese speaker at a business meeting without the need for the interpreter, or make out what the staff in a Chinese restaurant are saying about you. (“Fatso over here wants more General Tso’s chicken.”) As if that weren’t enough, you also get access to an Alexa-like personal assistant that Xrai claims is more powerful than voice assistants available to hearing people.

We describe Xrai glass as a system, and that’s because it’s not just one piece of kit. You need quite a lot of stuff beyond the software, the basic version of which is free.

The most important add-on is A.R. glasses, made by Chinese maker Nreal and available from Amazon. And, ideally, a Bluetooth microphone for less than $100. You also currently need a basic Android smartphone with its own SIM card. The biggest drawback is that the glasses need to be wired into the phone, so there’s always a wire looping down from the back of the glasses—there’s not enough bandwidth in Bluetooth to carry all the data needed.

Yep, it’s complicated. But not a fraction as complicated as being unable to understand anything being said around you.

The Kindle Scribe E-Reader

The Kindle Scribe, $389.99.

An e-book you can mark up with ease

A Kindle you can write on as if it’s paper sounds like a huge deal. One of the chief catches of those e-readers has always been that flagging up relevant pages or paragraphs was awkward and not very efficient.

But the new Kindle Scribe does much more than upgrade the e-book experience. It’s also an almost infinitely capacious e-ink notebook for handwritten material, drawings, and so forth. And even if you lose it, your precious scribbles are stored in the cloud, so you can load them onto a replacement device or access them from your phone or computer.

The writing experience on the Scribe almost perfectly mimics using a pen or pencil on paper. You can choose different types of paper—plain, lined, squared, etc.—and writing in bright sunlight is no problem at all. Also, the battery lasts up to three months on one charge.

What, then, prevents this fine product from being one of the gadget sensations of the year?

Well, it’s that something uncannily similar has been on sale from a Norwegian company since 2017 and has a small but dedicated global user base, including your columnist.

The reMarkable 2 is, indeed, one of the mainstays of this column’s production. Being able to access all one’s desk notes since 2018, not only on the device but remotely from a phone, makes reMarkable one of the most productive devices we know of.

There’s always been one problem with the reMarkable, however, which is that it’s not great for e-books. On the other hand, the reMarkable 2 is, we think, fractionally nicer as a connected notepad than the Scribe—it’s less clunky and a little sleeker.

A great dilemma, this one. The pricing is similar: the reMarkable is a little more, at $597 for the premium bundle, the Scribe is around $500 if you include the (essential, we think) leather case and (even more essential) premium pen with built-in electronic eraser.

Having a notebook and Kindle reader in one is a big plus. Indeed, it’s hard not to imagine the Norwegian contender losing out in this rather niche battle, which would be a shame.

The Bluesound Pulse M Speaker

The Bluesound Pulse M, $449.

A stand-alone speaker that’s light on fuss but big on sound

A few editions back, in October, we introduced some fabulous $1,499 wireless stereo speakers from PSB, a terrific Canadian hi-fi company. These, the Alpha IQ, will imminently be announced in some cute new colors to join the existing black and white.

At the time, we also mentioned a coming one-box wireless speaker from a partner company of PSB, Bluesound.

Well, it’s here and we love it. The Bluesound Pulse M is one of the finest stand-alone speakers we’ve ever heard—good-looking, amazing-sounding, and a delight to use with Bluesound’s smooth BluOS operating system.

You can easily wrangle BluOS to sync your Alpha IQs and your Pulse M to play the same music in, say, the kitchen and the living room.

We’re not great fans round here of such multi-room systems because they lend themselves to that egregious modern phenomenon: background music. Although, these speakers are so good that your background music will be of superlative audio quality, which at least partly excuses it.

The Vinylly Dating App

The Vinylly app, free.

If your date doesn’t like your music, imagine what else is wrong with them …

Are one’s musical tastes and preferences a good predictor of how a relationship might work out?

Could you even date on the basis that you both like the same music?

Rachel Van Nortwick, a former marketer in Phoenix and the woman behind Vinylly, an app that matches potential dates by musical taste, believes so.

Speaking with her made us aware that not only are the vast majority of songs about love, but that it might be hard to find much in common with someone who likes a musical genre you despise. A gulf in political taste might even be easier to bridge.

This is why Van Nortwick started Vinylly, the name suggesting that it’s been a long wait for such a service. If you find yourself without a date for, say, New Year’s and would rather like one, there seems to be little harm in giving Vinylly a spin.

Based in London and New York, AIR MAIL’s tech columnist, Jonathan Margolis, spent more than two decades as a technology writer for the Financial Times. He is also the author of A Brief History of Tomorrow, a book on the history of futurology