I’m not an iPhone app junky. I only download apps I’m sure I’ll use, and I promptly delete any that disappoint me. And I certainly never pay for full versions of apps without first checking the reviews. What can I say? I’m a picky user.
Then one day, a new language translation app exploded onto the scene with an unbelievable YouTube demo video. So unbelievable that I actually doubted its veracity. But because my Twitter-friends wouldn’t stop retweeting about it, I decided to investigate. I may be picky, but my friends rarely steer me wrong.
According to the official video demo, Word Lens uses the iPhone’s camera to visually translate words and phrases from one language to another. Just open the app, point your iPhone at a sign or a label, and the words change before your eyes.
After I bought the app and tested it out in my multilingual neighborhood, I decided to bring it home and record a video demo of my own. The first thing to note is that, so far, the app only translates from Spanish to English and vice versa. The second most important thing to know is that the app really struggles to translate curved or distorted text, many serif fonts, and it’s completely useless with handwritten words. It also has a hard time with large blocks of text.
For my demonstration, I used Word Lens to translate passages from a few popular children’s books; first into English, and then into Spanish. Bilingual readers will easily spot artifacts of direct translation, but everyone should be able to see the app in action. As the demo progresses, the words become fewer and simpler, and the Word Lens translation becomes correspondingly clearer.
In spite of its problems, I’m still very impressed with Word Lens. It’s the first app of its kind, and I expect future updates will help mitigate some of its shortcomings. Obviously, it’s better suited to travel-related translation than it is to literary translation, but it may also be useful for language students working on their vocabularies. Like most apps, Word Lens doesn’t quite live up to the hype. Unlike many apps, however, it’s entirely worth the price.