Word Lens hit the store with a bang, promising real-time translation of signs, menus, and any other text your camera can capture. Does the augmented-reality app work? Somewhat, yes. Is it the future? Definitely. We're just not there yet. I'll let the images in the gallery tell the story. But first, a quick rundown of what to expect when you download this free app.
Using Word Lens
It is fun to point your camera at text in the real world and see the iPhone start replacing text. There's your future part. Character recognition flops all over the place if you don't hold your hand steady, of course, but when you hit the pause button Word Lens snaps a pic and analyzes the text it has captured. There's a little camera control you can use, including a camera light (for when you're at Casa Bonita), basic zoom and focusing square (on supported iPhones like the 3GS, 4 and 4th-gen touch running iOS 4).
With the $0.99 entry fee you get two demo modes: reverse text and erase text. Erasing text is hilarious. Reversing it gives you a headache. If you pay $4.99 you download the Spanish-to-English dictionary leading to the real usefulness of the app. Does it really work? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
To test Word Lens, I picked three Spanish-language signs from Flickr to translate.
Photo 1 is a warning sign along the US-Mexico border warning of exposure if a crossing is attempted. Cuidado means caution or take care. Now see the first result from Word Lens as it tried to translate while the camera was not paused. Here's attempt number two from the gallery, also showing real-time results. In neither case has the video been paused as a photo for analysis.
Photo 2 is a sign from a men's restroom in Xalapa. Translated, it means "if you're going to vomit, put your hands here." Here's the Word Lens version: "IF WILL TO VOMIT FAVOUR OF PUT THE HANDS HERE." The picture on the right shows how Word lens underlines the letters/words it replaced. In this case, I did pause the camera and gave the app time to think.
Photo 3 is an elevator sign found in Spain which reads, "Warning don't get close to the entrance. Prevent children from using the lift alone." Well, it used to. Instead the letters have been scratched off so it now says "You get close to the entrance, encourage children to go down alone." Word Lens translated this to say what you see in this screenshot. Kinda funny, but a tough challenge. The underlined words again show you the things which were translated.
Overall, Word Lens does an impressive job of recognizing characters. Its Spanish dictionary suffers a bit, and it is not performing advanced translations as Google would (not that Google Translate is perfect by any means). However, as a first step it is really impressive. If Word Lens was tied into a more powerful translating service, it would be magical. It's pretty close already.