Many of today’s technologies, from smartphones to cameras, are effectively “solved.” To borrow from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Kansas City,” some tech manufacturers seem to have “gone about as fur as they c’n go.”
But conquering language barriers with technology is an ongoing—and long-running—slog. The first attempt at machine translation goes back almost 90 years, to the efforts of a Soviet scientist, Petr Troyanskii. Since then, scientists have spent entire lifetimes trying to perfect it. Recent developments such as Google Translate, available for free on any computer or smartphone, and the subscription-based German technology DeepL, regarded by some as the best available, are impressive but still a long, long way from the dream of instant, in-ear translation.
Much early research in translation machines came from the U.S.S.R., but by the 1980s, the Japanese, similarly isolated linguistically by a language Westerners were either incapable of learning or too lazy to try, became active in the field.
And, indeed, a Japanese company is responsible for one of the most impressive pocket translators on the market today. The $299 Pocketalk Plus is not quite the Universal Translators used in Star Trek to render alien languages into something more earthly, nor the Babel fish, a small, multi-lingual interpreter fish you put in your ear, as envisioned in 1979 by the comic science-fiction writer Douglas Adams—but it’s the company’s third, and best, version of the product.
And while we reckon the Pocketalk Plus will likely seem pretty crude 10 years from now, it’s rather magical at the moment. You can speak into it in any of 82 languages and be understood in any of the others.
In some of the more obscure supported languages (such as Gujarati, Lao, and Telugu) the translation of your words will appear in text on the screen of the small, cell-phone-size device.
But for the major languages, and even some more exotic tongues—Khmer, Javanese, Albanian, Kannada—it’s a proper two-way voice-communication machine. So, whether it’s the mainstream, such as English to Spanish, you need (and you can choose from the Spanish of Spain, the U.S., Argentina, or Colombia), or more esoteric combos, like Swahili to Swedish and back, Pocketalk Plus will do it swiftly and outstandingly well.
We’ve tried it voice-to-voice in English/Spanish, English/Italian, English/Turkish, and English/Tagalog, and found it faultless. “It’s perfect Tagalog,” said a friend from the Philippines. The machine’s voice can sound a bit robotic, but in informal tests against DeepL, which translates text-to-text, Pocketalk has given word-for-word identical translations.
This is mind-bending stuff when you consider how complex language is. Just thinking of English: the word “leave,” for example, has more than 20 different meanings. German, to the frustration of simultaneous interpreters, often strands verbs at the end of long sentences. Factors like these complicate matters for many machines, but the Pocketalk Plus handles them with ease.
Pocketalk Plus needs an Internet connection, as translations are done remotely, but the device has a built-in SIM card that connects to data services in 130 countries for two years free of cost. That it won’t suck up your precious data allowance is one of several reasons—in addition to a nearly 200-hour battery life—that it’s a better tool to use on vacations or business trips than Google or Apple Translate running on a smartphone.
The Pocketalk Plus can cope with you speaking or being spoken to for a burst of up to 30 seconds, or around 100 words. This may not sound like much, but in a conversation, a 100-word monologue is so long as to sound almost demented. Also, it features a camera to read foreign-language signs on your behalf. And it has cute, quirky touches, such as the ability to translate Latin. However, while you can speak in your language and have it come out in Latin, it can’t handle translating Latin speakers back to you. Bad news if you like to converse with Roman legionnaires or Vatican prelates.
The troubles of the coronavirus era—and the existential crises that have arrived in its wake—murdered sleep as surely as did Macbeth, with evidence globally suggesting that ever more people are having disturbed nights.
Comforting sound is one of the surest ways to fill the echoing void of anxious nighttime thoughts, and technology has various ways of delivering that soothing distraction. But one person’s calming background soundtrack is another’s sleep killer, so for those of us with partners or roommates, headphones are a welcome technological middle ground.
Kokoon, a start-up, introduced a $349 pair of plush, fabric-covered, over-ear headphones a few years ago, and they have been much lauded by users around the world. The Kokoon Relax are noise-isolating, both physically and electronically, and link by Bluetooth to the company’s subscription app, which is populated with sleep-inducing sounds, from meditations to binaural soundscapes. You can also use your own sounds if you find subscription models irritating.
Kokoon headphones—which are also well suited to air travel—even have sensors to monitor your movement and brain-wave patterns so they can gently fade the sounds when you finally get to sleep. They are big, however, and not everyone will feel they can spend the whole night with them on.
But now Kokoon has introduced an earbud version, Nightbuds, with the same features. Designing a soft, comfortable earbud that doesn’t fall out during sleep—especially if you’re a side sleeper—has taken a while, and though the talented company’s new product looks like a bit of a contraption, it is actually very clever indeed. The buds successfully meet the not inconsiderable challenge of sitting lightly but immovably in the ears.
Nightbuds also track your sleep using an infrared-light system that shines through your skin and offers information when you wake up on how long it took you to get to sleep and how long you slept for. Don’t rely on Nightbuds to provide fabulous quality audio, however—it’s not their job.
Atom Studios Flat Cable
The gradual return to travel has been an untrammeled delight, but recalling travel habits—like which tech hardware to pack for which kind of trip—has been surprisingly difficult. On each of two recent overseas trips since most restrictive coronavirus rules have been lifted, this writer has forgotten a vital cable or adapter.
But cunning tech-accessory designers seem to have been busy during the global hibernation. This new universal cable from a small British design studio is something approaching genius—it has shrunk down a lot of equipment into a very small bag, making it considerably more convenient and usable than the traditional tangle of wires and connectors travelers confront.
Atom Studios’ Flat Universal Cable is a high-quality USB-C to USB-C wire whose chief virtue is in its name: it’s flat, which almost entirely eliminates tangles.
Its second virtue is that it can connect almost anything you have to anything else you have using push-fit adapters. These are simpler and better than magnetic adapters some accessory companies have unsuccessfully tried when making universal cables.
In the Atom Studios bundle, you get a standard USB connector, an Apple Lightning, and a Micro USB—the type that is gradually becoming obsolete but hasn’t yet entirely disappeared. You can build any combination of connectors you choose in a second, and, when one gadget is charged, you can adjust the cable for some other function.
As a rather original encore, for a few dollars extra you can add a matching six-ounce weight to stabilize your charging cable by keeping it held down, thereby avoiding all manner of gadgetry clattering to the floor.
Heysong Bluetooth Speaker
Here’s a slightly murky tech secret, without naming names: a surprising proportion of gadgets bearing the styling and logo of mid-market Western brands are little more than slickly re-styled and re-labeled versions of stuff designed, made, and sold for next to nothing in Shenzhen, China’s Los Angeles–scale technology megapolis. Some may have slightly higher-specification parts, but sell for huge multiples of the market price. Portable Bluetooth stereo speakers are a good case in point. It’s easy to pay $100 plus, often more than $200 for a speaker with a good brand name. It will perform well, but it won’t have the choicest audio quality.
There’s a whole world of substantially similar products very likely coming out of the same factories and selling for under $40. AIR MAIL took this waterproof indoor-outdoor stereo speaker on a trip recently and was hugely impressed. It was loud as hell, good to listen to, paired instantly with our devices, and had seemingly unending battery life. Its tough, ruggedized speaker cones even include L.E.D. lights for a rather gaudy (and non-optional) multicolor light show.
At the time of writing, the speaker we put through its paces went by the name of the Heysong Reverb, but, as we saw with planetarium projectors in the last Landing Gear, these excellent but bargain-basement Chinese-made products can change brand name almost from week to week. If you search on Amazon for “Heysong Portable Bluetooth Speaker Waterproof Wireless Outdoor Speakers with LED Light” you might find this one, or it may be called any number of somewhat implausible names. It’s potluck, essentially.
We don’t condone being cheap in these parts, but $40 for a more than fine—outstanding, to be frank—gadget can’t go unnoted.
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