Word Lens iPhone app is an amazing translator, but finicky

Dec 17, 2010
Tech

The things that iPhone apps are doing with augmented reality are interesting, but usually not that useful. The just released Word Lens borders on amazing, however, using the iPhone’s camera to translate text on the fly, right on the screen, as you pan the camera over the words. The effect is pretty stunning. The app […]

The things that iPhone apps are doing with augmented reality are interesting, but usually not that useful. The just released Word Lens borders on amazing, however, using the iPhone’s camera to translate text on the fly, right on the screen, as you pan the camera over the words.

The effect is pretty stunning. The app features a demo to show you how it works, but while Word Lens itself is free, the translation features are currently limited to English to Spanish or Spanish to English, and each translation set costs $4.99. The demo takes English words as you pass the camera over them and reverses them. It’s pretty accurate and pretty fast, all told.

The English to Spanish translation, which we sampled for this review, seemed to be equally speedy as well. The accuracy of the translations is hard to gauge, however — in both cases, Word Lens would snap between different translations of words as it attempted to read the text.

Right now, as cool an effect as Word Lens has, it has two issues: first, it’s fairly limited in scope, as it obviously only features one language set; and second, any movement at all of the camera causes the app to struggle to recapture and translate text. This applies to the general shakiness that comes along with holding the phone in your hand.

And while Word Lens does seem to translate fairly accurately, you can’t depend on it to teach you Spanish. Sometimes the app will bounce between possible translations of a word, or assign the wrong gender or suffixes to words because it has trouble with context.

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Still, Word Lens is pretty cool, and with some updates and additional language packages, will undoubtedly be awesome. The translations seem like they’ll be enough to help travelers who don’t speak a country’s native language to navigate to places like train stations, hotels and bathrooms. Word Lens can give you the gist of what a sign says or what’s on a piece of paper, but it won’t be enough to translate anything more complex than that.

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Phil Hornshaw

Phil Hornshaw is a freelance writer, editor and author living in Los Angeles, dividing his time between playing video games, playing video games on his cell phone, and writing about playing video games. He’s also the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel, which attempts to mix time travel pop culture with some semblance of science, as well as tips on the appropriate means of riding dinosaurs. Check out his profile.

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