Word Lens (for iPhone)
There was a time when a jaunt through a foreign country meant stashing a translation guide on your pocket so that you could whip it out at a moment's notice to read a sign or understand a spoken word. It's a rudimentary system that's worked for ages, but Quest Visual looks to change the game with its Word Lens free iPhone (free, but language packs cost $4.99) app, which translates printed text on the fly.
How It Works
The concept behind Word Lens is a simple one: You point your iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, or fourth generation iPod touch's camera at printed text and the app translates the word on the fly simply by tapping the green button in the toolbar. That ability isn't included by default; you have to purchase one of the $4.99 language packs. Unfortunately, only two packs are available at the moment—English to Spanish, and Spanish to English—so the selection is extremely limited. Other undisclosed languages are in the works.
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It does include two demos designed to entice into purchasing a language: Reverse Words (which spells words in reverse) and Erase Words (which removes words, leaving behind punctuation). I found them pretty useless for day to day use, but they were impressive demonstrations of Word Lens' ability to identify words.
I tested Word Lens' ability to translate English into Spanish by pointing my iPhone 3GS' camera at a number of items around my work area. Directing the lens toward a book entitled "Fix Your Own PC, Eighth Edition" saw each on-screen word flicker between English and Spanish (which was written in blue letters) as the app processed information—and it wouldn't stop. But when I pointed it at the title on the book's spine it translated near-instantaneously into "Fijar Ti Propio PC, Eighth Edicion." It appears that the less visual information the app processes, the better and faster the translation; it seemed to have been "distracted" by the title's layout, bullet points, and other call-outs on the cover. Pressing and holding the eyeball icon (located in the toolbar positioned at the bottom of the screen) lets you switch to the non-translated text, which may assist users in learning the language. Word Lens didn't recognize handwriting or stylized fonts in my tests.
A button in the menu located at the bottom of the screen lets you capture translated stills, but they aren't saved to your device. A Spanish-speaking colleague took a look at the stills I captured and determined that the accuracy is good enough to give a person a general of what was translated, but that it isn't always strictly linguistically accurate.
Google Translate confirmed this: "Fix Your Own PC, Eighth Edition" became "Fije Se Propio PC, Octavia Edicion." Google's translation of "Hello, how are you?" (which was printed on a sheet of paper) was also more accurate than Word Lens'. Although Google Translate may be more accurate, it requires actually typing text into a field—Word Lens requires no effort, handy for when you're out and about.
Tapping the book icon launches a database that translates words you type into it. For example, "Bus" returned a list of related Spanish words such as "Autobus," "Bus," "Conductor," and more. If you're using an iPhone 4, you can use the digital zoom and camera flash to get a better view of text. It didn't, however, improve any translation issues.
Should You Look Through the Word Lens?
In terms of language translation, Word Lens does a respectable job; in terms of convenience and ease of use, Word Lens will make you want to chuck your language guide. Word Lens may not serve up the perfect translation, and some may feel that the app should come bundled with at least one language pack, but the ease of use makes it an app that every iPhone-toting traveler should have installed—once it offers the required language.