With advances in artificial intelligence, cloud services, mobile computing, and ubiquitous internet connectivity coming together, we can expect many applications to become streamlined and available under all conditions.
The WT2 Edge translator earbuds by Timekettle is an example of this convergence of different technologies. The WT2 Edge, which is one of several devices Timekettle offers, does something that would have been considered science fiction until not long ago: automated, real-time, and seamless translation of dozens of languages.
While not a perfect translation device (machine translation still has underlying problems that need scientific breakthroughs in AI), the WT2 Edge shows the power of combining the right technologies. And it can be an indispensable tool for frequent travelers or business people who have frequent meetings with people who don’t speak their language.
What is the WT2 Edge
The WT2 Edge is an earbud that looks very much like the Apple AirPods. However, the WT2 Edge is designed solely for translation. The earbuds come with a companion app that supports translation for 40 languages and 93 accents, covering most of the globe.
How you use the earbuds depends on the translation mode you’re using (more on this in a bit). But in most cases, you wear one of the buds and give the other one to the person you’re talking to. Each person speaks in their own language and hears the other person’s translated response in their earbud.
This provides a seamless experience when talking to a person who doesn’t speak your language. One of the advantages of the Timekettle WT2 Edge over other translation services and products is its support for simultaneous speech and translation, which makes the experience more natural, especially when you’re having a conversation in which people might jump in and speak without waiting for others to pause.
While the usage is intuitive, there is a lot of interesting technology at work behind the scenes. The earbud uses directional microphones and active noise canceling and environment noise canceling to pick up the right speech and filter out noise. The Timekettle app uses AI-powered text-to-speech technology to transcribe spoken words in different accents. Machine learning algorithms (on-device or in the cloud) translate the text to the target language and generate spoken words, which are then played in the other earbud.
At the same time, the Timekettle app provides automated transcription and translation and displays the text in a way that both conversation parties can see and read. That is a lot of useful features packed into one device and app.
Aside from that, the Timekettle WT2 Edge has the specifications that you would expect from high-end earbuds. The earbuds are sturdy and solid and fit snugly in your ears. The device batteries last three hours and the charging case provides up to 12 hours of charge.
One important thing to know is that the WT2 Edge only supports translation. You can’t use it for calls or listening to music. Some people have criticized this aspect, but I think it is actually a decent feature (more on this in the business section).
The Timekettle app provides four modes of operation:
Simultaneous mode: This is exclusive to the WT2 Edge earbuds. When working in this mode, each speaker wears one of the earbuds and both can speak simultaneously. The earbuds automatically pick up the right voices and the AI system performs the transcription, translation, and voice synthesis automatically with a small delay.
Touch mode: This mode is like the simultaneous mode. The difference is that each speaker must tap their earbud before speaking and tap it again to stop the translation. This means speakers must take turns speaking and the conversation will not be as natural as in the simultaneous mode. However, it also reduces confusion and improves the quality of the translation.
Speaker mode: In this mode, the user is not engaged in a two-way conversation and is talking to an audience who speaks another language. The earbuds capture the speaker’s voice. The translated speech is played back by the phone through the Timekettle app.
Listen mode: This is the reverse of the speaker mode. Here, you’re listening to a TV show or a conference or a conversation. The earbuds play the translation for you.
The Timekettle app also has a nifty Group Chat feature that supports up to 200 participants, each speaking in one of 40 languages that the app supports. The application translates the conversation into the native language of each user. Users can either type their text or speak into their WT2 Edge earbuds.
In addition to the different translation modes, the Timekettle app has some other useful features, including an archive of all your conversations. You can send the transcriptions to your email or phone storage for use in other applications.
One of the things that I was interested in was the AI system that is working behind the scenes in the Timekettle WT2 Edge. The technology is proprietary and there is very little detail on the machine learning models used behind the scenes. But from what the company says, Timekettle uses six translation engines, including DeepL, Google, Microsoft, iFlytek, AmiVoive, Hoya, and Timekettle’s own HybridComm Translation Technology.
I initially thought that the application uses multiple engines as an ensemble. But based on what the company has told me, Timekettle has a kind of ranking system that chooses the best engine for each language pair. I expect the company’s proprietary language engine to improve as usage increases.
The Timekettle app also supports offline translation for eight languages. Naturally, the offline translation is not as good as the cloud-based AI, but it can come in handy if you’re stuck in a situation where you don’t have internet access. Offline support comes as language pair packs that you must download on your phone before using them.
Pricing and business model
The WT2 Edge comes with a steep $350 price tag that covers both online and offline translation. However, this particular model has been designed for a market segment that needs translation quite frequently, which can make it a worthwhile purchase, especially since the company has put extra effort to make the earbuds useful in environments where there is a lot of noise and cross-talk. The quality of the hardware gives it an advantage in areas where general-purpose earbuds don’t work.
This is also why I think Timekettle made a good decision to make the WT2 Edge exclusively focused on translation. The app and hardware address a specific problem and they do it very well.
But I’m yet to be convinced about the overall business model of the company (this is my product manager side interfering in my consumer experience). Whenever I purchase a product that has an online element (e.g., a mobile app that is connected to a cloud server), one of the things that I like to know is how the company will continue to pay for the costs of running its servers if its customers make a one-time payment.
Why is this important? Because if the company goes down, your earbuds and app will be of no use. Just look at the fate of products such as Anki and Kuri, cute home robots whose cloud brains shut down after their companies went bankrupt.
From what I’m seeing, Timekettle is currently covering its costs through the high price of its AI translation devices. But raising the costs of devices also shrinks the total addressable market. The company can collect additional payments from offline language packs, but I’m not sold on that product line being a good source of income.
At the same time, Timekettle is expanding its market by releasing new devices, such as the recent Fluentalk T1 handheld translator device. Adding new devices is a good remedy but not a long-term solution for a niche market. After all, even Apple, the master of making consumers pay insane amounts for personal gadgets every few years, is expanding its recurring-payments business. I’m waiting to see what kind of subscription-based services Timekettle will release in the future.
Overall, I think the WT2 Edge is a fantastic AI-powered translation device. Given its price, it might not be for everyone, but it serves its special audience very well.