Kirk to Enterprise: Air New Zealand trials ‘universal translator’

December 26, 2017
Air New Zealand chicago route
Using Google translate to communicate with passengers is one of the tech projects being investigated by AirNZ. Photo: Air New Zealand.

It may be clunkier than Star Trek’s  universal translator but there’s no denying the similarities between the futuristic concept and a new Air New Zealand application of Google Translate.

Science fiction writers have long grappled with the problem of easily allowing alien species to communicate and the idea of a universal translator has been in use since the 1940s.

It was a staple of iconic TV and film series Star Trek and writer Douglas Adams coined his own humorous take on the idea with a small fish that excreted translations, the Babel fish, inserted in people’s auditory canal.

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While only aliens flying on Air New Zealand are in its legendary videos, the airline is teaming with Google to trial its own version of the universal translator.

The aim is to help crew communicate with non-English speaking passengers and the technology involves a combination of the Google Pixel handset and the company’s Bluetooth Pixel Buds headphones.

The handset picks up the foreign language comments of the passenger, translates them and transmits the result via the headphones.  The crew member can then reply in English and the translation will come through the handset in the passenger’s native tongue.

The technology enables the live translation of 40 languages through Google Translate.

Like most airlines these days, New Zealand has multi-lingual cabin crew members but the airline points out it is not always possible to match staff to the language a passenger speaks.

“We operate to 30 international destinations and our customers speak an even more diverse range of languages.,’’ said Air New Zealand chief of digital technology Avi Golan. “Google’s Pixel Buds could assist in areas such as check-in and boarding as well as in-flight to help our staff communicate effectively with international customers.”

The effectiveness of that communication remains to be seen. Anybody who has used Google Translate knows it doesn’t always get everything right, with sometimes humorous results.

The new trial is the latest of several Air New Zealand has announced as it pursues its goal of becoming a leading “digital airline”.

It announced earlier this month it had become the latest carrier  — and the first in Australasia — to allow passengers to use Google’s automated voice system to make inquiries.

This gives customers a hands-free way to ask about a range of topics such as check-in and baggage limits using Google Assistant.

“In this increasingly digital world our customers expect us to provide a fast and personalized experience,’’ Golan said. “It’s crucial we embrace technology solutions and collaborating with like-minded partners helps us keep ahead of the game.”