Very Cool App: Word Lens

We recently downloaded a very cool app worth a blog: it’s called Word Lens.  Admittedly we only downloaded it because we heard it was (for a limited time only!) free.  We like free apps on our iPhones.  We don’t have a problem paying for an app we want, but free is even better.  By the way, we hear it’s also now available for Android, and it seems that just over a week ago, Google acquired Quest Visual, the company that publishes Word Lens.  That tells you right there it’s something worth taking a look at.
Good mobile apps do a slick job of solving a typical problem you might encounter anywhere you are.  The typical problem in this case is translating a sign.  Most of us travelers have landed in a strange airport and found ourselves confronted with signs not in our native tongue.  The challenge of figuring your way around–despite not reading or speaking the languages–is one of those things we travelers (strangely enough) enjoy.
Word Lens works like this: launch the app, which looks like your camera app before you take a picture, select the language you think the sign might be in (you might can guess by the country you’re in, but not always), and point it at the sign.  A few moments later the image on your screen morphs into your selected language.  It doesn’t just give you a pop-up of the translated text, it makes the sign actually look like the same sign with your desired language:
On the left: what you see when you first point your phone at the sign;
On the right: what you see a few moments later.

 Remember the communicators in Star Trek that would translate speech in real time?  Yeah, well, that’s next.

The app translates to and from English and any of the following languages: German, Spanish, French, Portugese, Italian, and Russian.  It looks like the app was setup to allow you to purchase languages, but in our case all the language prices in the app were $0.00 (sweet!)  It might be possible that they charge for future languages, or that they decide to stop giving it and it’s languages away for free.

Here’s the best thing: the app is entirely self-contained, meaning you don’t have to have an Internet connection for it to work.  All its logic and database of language translation goodness are downloaded when you install the app.  I’m sure updates will be regular and will obviously require a connection, but what this means is that when Lori and I land in Portugal in just another couple of weeks and we rent a car to head to wine country, if we don’t understand the toll booth signs, we can point our iPhones at the sign and figure out what we’re supposed to do even if our cell service doesn’t work or we don’t have a 4G connection.  Or if you hike to the top of the Swiss Alps and can’t read the sign giving you directions to get back down–even if you haven’t picked up a Swiss SIM card with data–you can read the sign.

One final word: translation technology isn’t perfect.  Anyone who’s played around with Google’s language tools knows this.  It can be quite funny reading some of the translations, which can miss words altogether, mistranslate local idioms or dialect word choices, and can’t pick up on context whatsoever.  The idea is to get just enough of the words to glean some meaning.  We’ll give Word Lens a field test in Portugal in a few weeks and report back how it worked.

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