Pete, my buddy at Google, frantically emailed me this morning about this new iPhone app, Word Lens, and told me he thought it was going to be an instant game changer in the world of travel. He also insisted that I do a quickie review of it on my blog.

Given that I done have a cell phone of any kind and am distinctly not a techie, take this quick “one-off” with a entire salt shaker, instead of a just a grain, but here goes. (My previous ‘tech tips’ were more an attempt at humor – playing this one straight, so beware)

The description that the makers of Word Lens give themselves on the iTunes app store is: “Instantly translate printed words from one language to another with your built-in video camera, in real time! Use Word Lens on vacation, business travel, and just for fun.”  The video that was just released on YouTube is pretty damn amazing:

As you can tell from the video, WordLens uses text recognition to determine what the word or phrase is, and then automatic translation software translates it into the new language.  The translation is then pasted over the original location, basically in real time.

The apps ability to instantly replace the words with the desired language, exactly as they appear in reality on the screen of your iPhone, approaches the realms of magic to this non-techie.  It at least deserves a solid, “WOW.”

Word Lens Instant Translator Ap for iPhone

The pros are pretty obvious, but a quick review of some of the various tech forums and other review sites brings up a few cons to consider, before you run to the iTunes store and download it.  One bonus that needs to be mentioned first though — no need for an internet connection.  It operates as a stand-alone app once downloaded.

  • It isn’t free.  Well, to be precise, the app is free, but worthless without the language additions.  English to Spanish costs $4.99, as does Spanish to English, so you are looking at $10 for both functions.  Spanish is the only language currently offered, but I assume others will be rolled out shortly.
  • The biggest problem appears to be that it is a word-for word translation.  On one of the forums, the programers noted. “yep, this is a word-for-word translation, because it’s fast and it gets the point across. we’re working to improve translation quality and finesse, but it’s a much harder problem to understand grammar. so, we hope it gives the general meaning, and you can learn to piece it apart.”  So while this app is amazing, the translation you get for something like ‘dead end’ ends up as ‘Muerto Fin,’ which means nothing in Spanish, instead of the proper ‘callejón sin salida,’ which means ‘street without exit.’
  • Currently it is only available for the iPhone – and apparently only the newest version of the iPhone, not the 3G version — or at least not well on that platform, there are conflicting reports.
  • Related to that, if you are traveling, your iPhone is probably unlocked, which usually means you are running an older version of the OS software with local sim chips.  It appears this app does not work with older versions of the OS software that you might be running in this situation.
  • You are limited to the in-house translation program and can’t download any other translator to coordinate with the app, such as Google Translate.

In short, these folks are going to make lots and lots and lots of money.

As a side note, when I was doing some quick research, people on the forums were talking about how incredible this application would be in translating Chinese and Japanese characters.  Turns out, there is something called Pleco that does that for Chinese, but not in real time.  Here is their YouTube video.

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I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all. Read more by Michael Hodson and connect on Google Plus.

27 Responses to “Word Lens – Instant Visual Translator App for iPhone – Travel Game Changer?” Subscribe

  1. Laura December 17, 2010 at 2:21 pm #

    I saw this app on YouTube. Sounds fantastic! Now I just need an iPhone to put it on 🙂

  2. Kirsten Alana December 17, 2010 at 2:39 pm #

    Kind of surprised they rolled it out w/ only one language to start. Spanish is so widely used, it’s a good choice. But really, only one?

    • Michael Hodson December 17, 2010 at 3:06 pm #

      I have to assume that more are coming quickly. And also have to assume that they are just getting inundated with venture capital finance offers this week.

      • Kirsten Alana December 19, 2010 at 2:29 pm #

        I think you assume right!

  3. Erica December 17, 2010 at 2:49 pm #

    I sat there and wowed like crazy when this was posted to me last night! But now I’m sad that I only have a 3G and won’t be able to play around with it. Still a step in the right direction!

    • Michael Hodson December 17, 2010 at 3:05 pm #

      I am happy to not have any cell phone at all, but hearing about all these cool new apps is making me reconsider….

  4. Andrea December 17, 2010 at 11:23 pm #

    This is interesting to see because we were just talking to a guy last night at a party who lived in Korea and he was saying how difficult it was to figure out what was in each store at the shops because he couldn’t read the signs. Would be very handy for shopping in Asian countries if it works for that!

    • Michael Hodson December 18, 2010 at 2:22 pm #

      Truly helpful, especially in countries with symbolic characters that are close to impossible for us Westerners to pick up on.

  5. Dave and Deb December 17, 2010 at 11:50 pm #

    Sounds cool. We have an unlocked iPhone and yes, older software, so it is useless for us at the moment. But will be useful in the future I am sure. Pleco sounds good for Chinese characters.

    • Michael Hodson December 18, 2010 at 2:22 pm #

      I really would have felt better in China (and Russia) with some app like this, for sure.

      • Randall Lowe December 20, 2010 at 8:40 pm #

        My wife and I purchased Rosetta Stone Russian before our trip last year and learned the basic travel phrases needed to survive (including things about kids playing sports etc. that we would never use). It worked great until we had to read a sign. Deer in headlights – this app would have been a great addition to our trip. Thank you for the info and I hope they expand the language selection as Spanish (Italian b/c similarities to Spanish to an extent) is the only language besides English I can muddle my way through.

        • Michael Hodson December 21, 2010 at 11:17 am #

          Randy, thanks for reading. Ahhh, Rosetta Stone. I bought the Spanish one before my RTW trip. Still on my computer. Still unused. 😉

          Yep, when this thing starts hitting multiple languages, and especially the ones with the different alphabets and such…. really helpful.

  6. DTravelsRound December 18, 2010 at 1:57 pm #

    That’s a neat app! Wish I would have had that in Spain … and an iPhone! Amazing what technology can do these days to help out travelers!

    • Michael Hodson December 18, 2010 at 2:20 pm #

      I am with ya there… someone get me an iPhone and I’ll worry about the apps later. But yea, this does appear to be a good one. I especially like that you don’t have to have internet to use it.

  7. Lindsay aka @_thetraveller_ December 18, 2010 at 3:44 pm #

    That is CRAZY! I LOVE IT!

    Must. Get. iphone.

    I’m addicted to new gadgets, I can’t help myself. This app is AWESOME! And don’t worry you did a good job of reviewing it ‘for real’.

    • Michael Hodson December 21, 2010 at 11:18 am #

      You are going to get me an iPhone??!! Wow. So nice. 😉

  8. Ayngelina December 18, 2010 at 4:17 pm #

    yet another reason I need to get an iPhone although I’d be a bit cautious whipping it out in a lot of cities.

  9. Mikeachim December 18, 2010 at 4:37 pm #

    So it’s like a handheld, hands-off Google Translate? That’s useful indeed. These people are going to make ****loads of cash. Getting the gist is usually enough – and for translating signs, it’s going to be words and phrases anyway, not complicated sentences….

    One step nearer the Universal Translator (at which point humanity jumps the shark a bit, because learning other languages is a way to fill your brain with all sorts of useful skills).

    A bit gobsmacking, this.

    • Michael Hodson December 21, 2010 at 11:19 am #

      Why can’t we come up with a money making idea like this? Wait…. I can barely even program my own website. Hell, I can’t even do that.

  10. LeslieTravel December 18, 2010 at 5:14 pm #

    Thanks for the review of this interesting app. Appreciate that you included the positives AND the pitfalls… sounds like the app still needs a bit of work.

    • Michael Hodson December 19, 2010 at 3:44 pm #

      You know I am always up for pointing out the dark side also 😉

  11. Christy @ Ordinary Traveler December 20, 2010 at 12:15 pm #

    That’s so cool! I think I will wait until they come out with more languages. I could have used some help in SE Asia.

    • Michael Hodson December 21, 2010 at 11:20 am #

      so true — any of those Asian countries/languages would be a great addition.

  12. Laurel January 6, 2011 at 4:31 pm #

    I can’t wait to try this! I’m sure some of the translations would be hilarious!

  13. Bryan Haines January 14, 2011 at 7:29 am #

    This is one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a long time. And finally a useful app! Can’t wait to see where this will go – once they smooth out the bumps and add more languages.

    Thanks for sharing this!

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