Going to Spain for Christmas? Think you'll fancy a la cena de pavo? You might want to have a peek first at the latest augmented reality app to hit the stands.
Going by the timeless maxim of futurologist Arthur C. Clarke, Word Lens easily qualifies as a "sufficiently advanced" technology.
Twenty-eight months in the making, Quest Visual's Word Lens app translates the printed word using the iPhone's video camera. Its launch last week sent Twitter and the blogosphere into a frenzy. "This is what the future, literally, looks like," exclaimed TechCrunch.
When pointed at a sentence – strictly English or Spanish for the time being – the app refers to an included dictionary (so no internet connection required) before feeding back the translation in near-real time. Very smart (if you've got an iPhone 3GS or above). Some users have balked at the price – £2.99 for one-way translations – and it's currently got a 3.5/5 star rating from iTunes users.
But how does it fare away from the sleek promo video, out in the real world where shaky hands point phones at paragraphs of text? Er, not all that well actually. The magic fades in and out like a bad radio station signal.
Far from wanting to do the effort down – language is nascent ground for this kind of innovation – these are the points on which this "proof of concept" must build:
• It can really only translate simple, dozen-word-at-most sentences. Brilliant for tourists reading menus or road signs, but perennial problems persist for those wanting more. You have to take small chunks at a time or simply try decode imperfect translations.
• Translations jump about with shaky hands. Not so good if you're freezing.
• No handwriting or stylised fonts - clear printed stuff only. (Perhaps this will help stamp out Comic Sans. Well, we can hope.)
• It needs bright light. May we suggest that from your phone? This is likely because it's performing a machine vision process on the text - basically, a sort of real-time OCR, which then gets bunched into words, and then sentences, and then translated.
• On that basis, lots gets lost in translation. As with Google's efforts in this area, syntax and grammar aren't readily transposed in another language.
Speaking of Google, Reuters wonders what translation would be like if Word Lens put on Google Googles, its Android app which takes a snapshot of text and brings back a translation from the company's servers. "Such an app would deliver on the promise of augmented reality, which has been discussed much but unable to deliver apps that fit into most smartphone owners' daily lives," says Reuters' Kevin Kelleher.
And no, we don't know when Android/RIM/Windows Phone 7/Palm versions will be coming. To quote from the web page: "Our goal was to get a great first release on one platform. Keep in touch!"
Ditto for other languages.
So - have you used Word Lens yet? Is it still in the proof-of-concept phase, or would you readily pay £2.99 for its services?