Word Lens may be one of the coolest mobile apps I’ve ever seen — in theory. Unfortunately it doesn’t work very well right now. But here’s the idea: you point your iPhone camera at a sign or other object with printed text. Word Lens will identify the text, attempt to translate it in real-time, and replace the words on the sign with words in the language of your choice.
For instance, say you’re looking for directions or a shop while you’re in France… but you don’t speak French. Just fire up Word Lens, point it at the street and business signs around you, and while it probably won’t have much luck with proper names, the app will attempt to show you the same signs with words like “bibliothèque” replaced with “library” or “nord” replaced with “north.”
Unfortunately, there are two problems with the app right now. The first is that it simply provides word-for-word translations, so it can’t provide context, which could lead to some confusion, although it may help you figure out if you’re ordering pork or a vegetarian item when looking at a menu in a foreign language.
The bigger problem is that Word Lens just doesn’t work that well right now. I downloaded the free app demo on my iPod touch and started pointing it at various objects around my desk. The demo attempts to identify letters in a word and reverse them. For example, when I showed the app a business card from www.parallels.com, it spit out “www.slellarap.moc” at me. But that was the only text it was able to do that with.
I tried other business cards, a FujiFilm SD card, a letter, a map, and other items lying around, and it wasn’t able to lock onto any text. Instead it kept showing a constantly changing stream of letters for each item. I don’t know if it was the font of the Parallels business card or something else that helped Word Lens identify the letters, but in 5 minutes of testing, that was the only item I could get the app to work properly on.
That said, it was kind of awesome watching the app erase and replace text — with backwards words in the same color and a similar font in the same location. Word Lens definitely has potential. It’s just not quite ready for prime time yet.
The app is available as a free download, but you can purchase language packs from within the app. Currently Spanish go English and English to Spanish are the only language pairs available, but more are expected. Hopefully by the time they arrive, the developers will have improved their character recognition technology.
I should also point out that I tested Word Lens on my iPod touch. The app is also available for the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4, which have better cameras, flash, and auto-focus capabilities — all of which are missing on the iPod touch.