Word Lens + Google Goggles = A useful augmented reality app
Earlier this year, Google gave us its Goggles app, which used an Android phone’s camera to snap a photo of text, send it to Google’s remote servers and send back a translation of the text in a chosen language.
The idea was tantalizing enough, but the service depended on finicky data networks and, when those networks were working, could take 20 seconds or so to send back a translation. It was useful enough for translations that were instant, but it was hardly real-time, and almost certainly not the ideal service Google has in mind.
Now a startup called Quest Visual has come out of nowhere to one-up Google with an iPhone app called Word Lens. Unlike Goggles, it’s readily available for iPhones. And no data needs to be sent to a remote server. You can use an iPhone in Airplane Mode and it still works, or at least the free trial version does.
That free trial is itself ingeniously designed. It doesn’t translate words from one language to another but it does reverse their order. Word Lens has some features that are less attractive than Google Goggles’ translation: It’s only available for translating Spanish to English and English to Spanish, and each option costs $4.99. Google offers more languages, and all translations are free. Also, Word Lens’ translations often change if you don’t hold your hand still enough.
One can’t help think that the stronger features from both apps would make for an ideal instant translation service, provided Word Lens’ technology could be integrated into Google’s own.
Such an app would deliver on the promise of augmented reality, which has been discussed much but unable to deliver apps that fit into most smartphone owners’ daily lives.
The ability to translate signs, menus and other text instantly and without typing has been a distant dream ever since Altavista’s Babelfish translation engine appeared in the 90s. It points to the mobile phone’s potential to move beyond the ability to make phone calls or access email and the web and toward a device that can break down cultural barriers that have existed ever since Babylon was destroyed.