Google updates Translate app to include Word Lens semi-sorcery

15 January 2015

Google has finally integrated Word Lens in to the Translate app. The once-separate service uses your phone’s camera to translate written text in real time. Not only that, it replaces the on-screen text with a translation written in as close to a replica as possible. Font, as well as the colour of the text and background, are all taken in to consideration.

When it works it looks like magic. When it doesn’t it’s still pretty impressive, but you can get definitely some humorous and even awkward results.

Right now the Word Lens can translate back and forth between English and: French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.

To get set up, download the app and make sure you select the languages you want to translate between first. Now tap the camera icon and you’re away.

Be wary, though. This feature churns through a lot of battery and you may find your phone heats up a little. If you’re going to have fun poking through Google Image results of international street signs you might want to make sure a power cable is handy.

How well does it work?

The technology behind Word Lens has been getting steadily better. If you have a well-lit, clearly-written sign in a half-way standard font then you can expect at least some kind of result. If the text is overly decorative, or written on a curve, then you’ll have less luck.

I had the opportunity to try out Word Lens as a separate app in Germany a while back and it was able to give a vague idea of what a sign said, although specifics and even basic phrases were often beyond its grasp.

Checking it out today is a different matter. There aren’t too many non-English signs around our office, so we took it for a spin around the web to see how far it had come. The results were far from perfect, but it still has the ability to impress even in failure. One particularly awkward result we won’t post substituted the Spanish “violadores” (violators) for “rapists” in a no-parking warning sign. Although it did manage to specify the offenders would be punished by either the law or the king, it couldn't quite decide.

Others turned up even stranger results like substituting the head of a stick figure and some of the background for words. This is more likely due to our need to use 2D images as our test-drive and not the real thing. I certainly can’t remember this kind of thing happening in my German travels.

So word lens is a kind of semi-sorcery. It manages to be wholly impressive while not quite getting translations correct, but is usually close enough that you can make an educated guess. It's certainly a great addition to the Translate app and should come in handy in your travels.



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