“Word lens” is lame because you’re still dumb

Recently the internet buzzed with the introduction of Word Lens, an application for the iPhone which uses the camera to perform on-the-fly translations of signs and menus printed in a foreign language. The video demo is super compelling because the translation is so fast, and the interface so non-existent, it is as if you can suddenly read Spanish.

Imagine the places you will go. The richness of your new experience, when the previously opaque meaning of foreign signs is now clear. You are no longer forced to wander the streets, wondering what kinds of shops you are passing. You can understand signs regarding public transportation, tourism and safety. You sit down at a restaurant and with the help of Word Lens you can read the menu. The waiter approaches and quickly utters something, and waits attentively for your response. You glance at your iPhone… nothing. You flash a pained smile back, mutely trying to communicate you don’t understand. Word Lens is lame because it’s only half of the solution. You’re dumb because you can’t speak and really communicate.

Don’t get me wrong, Word Lens is a great step forward. It will help with some of the anxieties of travel, in particular in using and navigating complex transportation systems. These kinds of tasks don’t really require two-way communication. Simply reading and understanding your options is a major win.

buying subway tickets in tokyo
Trying to buy tickets for the Tokyo subway, would have been nice to have Word Lens.

But, you don’t need to read to understand what a particular storefront offers. You just look at what’s on the shelves.

Hong Kong Street
Hong Kong street scene, no translation needed for understanding

You don’t really need translation help for safety related issues. These were solved a long time ago with universal picture language.

Paris "walk" pictograph
Where safety is concerned pictures have long sufficed, Parisian “walk” pictograph

The hardest part of travel isn’t understanding, it is being understood: Asking for directions, ordering food, asking for a receipt. It’s frustrating to struggle at expressing your needs.

Word Lens leaves you with a little more input, but a frustrating lack of output. Now you may understand, but you still can’t say a damn thing.

The speed and accuracy of the underlying technology is a breakthrough. The transparency and dead-simplicity of the interface is exactly how visual hand-held translator should work. As many people have commented Word Lens delivers on the promise of augmented reality. This technology shows great potential and will most certainly be adapted and built upon.

But, until we get a voice, a way to communicate back, Word Lens is little more than an amazing party trick.

Typing into Google translate lacks the elegance, speed and simplicity of the Word Lens interface, but it does get you to “speak up” for yourself. How could Word Lens improve upon this?

A couple of girls use Google Translate to order Indian food

Stefan Klocek

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