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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Much-hyped Word Lens Fails to Deliver

Ok, there's a lot of breathless hype about a new iPhone app called Word Lens which translates signs and text between Spanish and English on the fly - just by pointing your device's camera at them. If you watch the demo video above your jaw will drop. It's an amazing piece of augmented reality, better than kicking an AR soccer ball around, for sure.

While the concept is brilliant, the execution is disappointing.

I've been speaking Spanish since I was 19 and wanted to test the tech. So, I downloaded the app and sprung for the $5 Spanish to English and $5 English to Spanish modules (other languages are in the works).

Yes it's cool seeing the "translation" appear. But it is not even close to being as smooth as the demo portrays. The words on the screen constantly, constantly, shift until you lock them in. It's a major annoyance.

Clumsy translations
On simple signs you get clumsy translations, which admittedly are still of value because you could make use of them in a place where you didn't know a word of Spanish (or English). But if you try it with anything slightly more complex, sometimes even a book cover, you get a different set of words every time you lock the translation in. The software is simply not robust enough to settle on a translation in one go. So it generates major visual noise as it tries to make sense of the text - words are always jumping around.

Another problem is the translations are word for word. This makes sense in a way. You can't fit five words on a three-word sign. But it's limiting as well.

Among the many pieces of text I tried was this simple phrase, "Sunday will come" in English, which should be "El Domingo VendrĂ¡" or "El Domingo LlegarĂ¡. Word Lens rendered "Domingo Voluntad Venir." Voluntad refers to a person's free will.

Sleight-of-hand
I have no doubt that this is the beginning of something special in the realm of AR. Kudos to the developers for it. But the demo video sleight-of-hand is really not appreciated. It's the visual equivalent of a disingenuous dot.com news release that overpromises and underdelivers.

So sure, if you want to experience the novelty of holding up your phone to a sign and watch it magically morph into another language, wonderful. It may come in handy if you're vacationing in Cuba or Mexico and need a bit of language help.

But if you want to use it for marginally more serious purposes, there is much more work to be done on Word Lens before it begins to deserve all its good press.

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