With CES the mothership of all things tech, and with more than 180,000 people converging on Las Vegas from countries around the world, there's no better place to try out a language translator.
So I decided to hang out with Travis in Las Vegas. That is, Travis the Translator. It's a crowdfunded handheld language translator that just ended pre-orders on Indiegogo, after raising $1.86 million. The first devices are expected to ship next month.
The device translates 80 languages, with everything from English, Spanish, and German to Albanian, Cantonese, and Bengali.
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What I liked about Travis
Travis is a compact device that's about the size of a cell phone circa 2003. There were definite pros and cons to using it over another translator, such as the Google Translate app.
One of the things I liked about Travis is that it has a 12-hour battery life on a single charge. And that is if you're constantly using it. I charged it before I began testing it, and it didn't need another charge until nine days later because I was only using it for 10-15 minutes at a time.
This is a benefit of using Travis instead of Google Translate, because using Google Translate on your smartphone will cause battery drain in no time.
I also found it was pretty effective at translating languages accurately. While there were some glitches, such as leaving out an occasional word, the translations were good for the most part.
The manufacturer also touts the device as having artificial intelligence that will learn as you speak. I didn't personally experience this benefit, but perhaps I didn't test it long enough for AI to kick in.
Another benefit is that it works on or off Wi-Fi. This could be reasonably listed under cons because you are limited to 20 languages off Wi-Fi. But even 20 languages is a positive.
Travis was supposed to be able to use a SIM card, but the company spokesperson confessed to me that they hadn't been able to get the SIM card to work properly. With a SIM card, the idea is that it would work on 3G with all 80 languages available, even without Wi-Fi.
What I didn't like about Travis
One of the first things I noticed about Travis was how sensitive the keys are. There are some functions that need a tap from your fingertip, and some that need a touch. If you touch the keys, which are presented as up, down, left and right arrows, even the slightest bit too firmly, it will read it as a tap and give you that function instead. But after spending a week with the device, I learned the differences and was able to easily navigate through the menus.
However, it wasn't just me with superhero strength in my fingertip. When I arrived home from CES with the loaner device in my pocket, my 10-year-old son, Nate, couldn't wait to give it a try. But he had issues with touch versus tap as well. I confess, he figured it out quite a bit faster than I did.
I discovered two more cons once my son had his turn with the device.
First, the buttons are not illuminated. If you don't already have the key locations memorized, this isn't a device you could use to talk to a taxi driver in the backseat of a cab at night. My son had to use my smartphone as a flashlight to be able to see the arrow keys at night in the car.
Second, the person you speak to might not be tech-savvy enough to use the translator. Nate tried to use Travis to talk to his grandfather, who speaks only Spanish. My son spoke in English and it translated to Spanish, but his grandfather couldn't grasp the concept that he needed to speak to Travis in Spanish, and allow it to translate back to English. He kept trying to speak to it in English, which was a struggle since that's not his preferred language. I told my son to explain it to him, with Travis translating, but after a few attempts the battery died (of course at that very moment, after living off of one charge for more than a week).
Why Travis is needed as a translator option
Not everyone has access to a smartphone. Travis is a handy standalone device that sold for only $179 for pre-orders. More languages will be added to Travis, and the company's intent is to make it available for areas of the world where language is a barrier to education and services.
Even if you have a smartphone, it eliminates the need to drag out your cell to use as a translating device. It saves your phone's battery, and also eliminates the need to hand your phone over to someone to speak into an app for translation. It's much less worrisome to hand over a relatively inexpensive compact plastic device than a $1,000-plus iPhone X.
I enjoyed playing with Travis at CES, and afterward, and once the kinks are worked out with the button sensitivity and the SIM card, it should be a viable translator device for frequent travelers.
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Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including People, W and Women's Wear Daily.