Of course it’s simulated.
Image: Google

At the end of its I/O presentation on Wednesday, there was a surprise. A pair of augmented reality glasses that show audible language translations in front of your eyes was shown off in a short video. In the video, Max Spear said that this prototype could be used for titles for the world, and we see family members communicating for the first time.

Hold on for a second. Like many people, we have used Google Translate before and think of it as a very impressive tool that makes a lot of embarrassing mistakes. We might trust it to get us directions to the bus, but that's not the same as trusting it to interpret and relay our parents' stories. Has it been said that it is finally breaking down the language barrier?

Real-time translation was a feature of the original Pixel Buds. Some of the people he tried it with said it sounded like he was five years old. That isn't what the video showed off.

We don't want to forget that the translation will happen inside a pair of augmented reality glasses. Not to hit at a sore spot, but the reality of augmented reality hasn't caught up to the concept video from a decade ago. Did you know that the one that acted as a predecessor to the much-maligned and embarrassing-to-wear Google Glass?

Glass was trying to accomplish something, but the augmented reality glasses from Google seem to be more focused. They are meant to do one thing and that is display translated text, not act as an ambient computing experience. Making augmented reality glasses isn't easy. Text can be hard to read on see-through screens if there is a moderate amount of ambient light. It's difficult to read subtitles on a TV with some glare from the sun through a window, but it's even more difficult to understand someone you can't understand on your own.

Even a moderate amount of ambient light can make viewing text on see-through screens very difficult

The hurdle that has stymied its competitors may be able to be overcome by Google. That wouldn't change the fact that there isn't a magic bullet for cross-language conversations. If you have ever tried to have a conversation through a translation app, you know that you must speak slowly. And methodical. And clearly. Unless you want to risk a bad translation. You might be done if you slip the tongue.

People don't converse in vacuums or like machines do. We know we have to use simpler sentences when dealing with machine translation, just like we code-switch when speaking to voice assistants. The translation can still come out awkward even when we speak correctly. Some of our colleagues in Korean pointed out that the pre-roll countdown for I/O displayed an honorific version of "Welcome" in Korean that nobody actually uses.

That mildly embarrassing flub pales in comparison to the fact that, according to a report from Sam Ettinger, there were over half a dozen broken or incorrect script on a slide during the Translate presentation. It's not that we don't expect good things, but those kinds of mistakes make it hard to believe that it's close to cracking real-time translation.

Congrats to @Google for getting Arabic script backwards & disconnected during @sundarpichai's presentation on *Google Translate*, because small independent startups like Google can't afford to hire anyone with a 4 year olds' elementary school level knowledge of Arabic writing. pic.twitter.com/pSEvHTFORv

— Rami Ismail (رامي) (@tha_rami) May 11, 2022

A complicated problem is being solved by Google. Translating words is easy, but figuring out the correct spelling is difficult. Language and communication are more complex than just those two things. Antonio's mother speaks three languages, Italian, Spanish and English. She uses words from both languages and her regional Italian dialect, which is like a fourth language. That type of thing is easy for a human to understand, but could the prototype glasses deal with it? The messier parts of the conversation are not important.

Google is trying to solve an immenselycomplicated problem

It isn't that the goal of Google isn't admirable. We want to live in a world where everyone gets to experience what the research participants in the video do, staring with wide-eyed wonderment as they see their loved ones. It's a long way to go before we reach that future, but breaking down language barriers and understanding each other in ways we couldn't before is something the world needs more of. Machine translation has been around for a long time. It doesn't speak human yet, despite the plethora of languages it can handle.