The world just got a tiny bit more awesome, thanks to an iPhone app called Word Lens. It’s the kind of thing you see in sci-fi but don’t expect to see in real life – like smellyvision or flying cars.
It works like this: you point the iPhone camera at some text, in a book or newspaper or whatever, and it translates the text into another language, live, so that what you see on the screen is not “The cat sat on the mat” but “Le chat s’est assis sur le tapis”.
There’s already a translation tool named after the Babel fish (a creature from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that allows you to understand any language by putting it in your ear) but Word Lens is a step closer to making that a reality. PC Pro have an amusing review of it here.
There are drawbacks: It costs £5.99 and only does English-Spanish so far. The free demo version performs only the useless function of turning words backwards (so “The cat sat on the mat” becomes “Eht tac tas no eht tam”), just to prove that it can recognise text and display it properly.
It’s impressive but imperfect – it often has trouble reading words, and some, including proper nouns, just aren’t in its dictionary. It’s tough for a machine to translate a sentence if it only knows some of the words.
Finally, it’s not too keen on reading serif fonts and it only displays text in upper case sans serif (although it effortlessly matches the size, colour, background colour and angle of the text).
The website says they’re working on more languages, which should be interesting. I’ve no idea where these guys have got their dictionaries and translation engines from, but if they’re up to scratch this could become an awesome little widget. I’m looking forward to pointing my phone at signs in foreign train stations and having them show up in English. Then one day they’ll build them into our retinas and we’ll all become omniglot cyborgs. Hurrah!