Quest Visual, the maker of the translating tool, Word Lens, announced on Friday that it has been purchased by Google.
For those not familiar with Word Lens, it’s one of the most impressive augmented reality programs out there. It scans text using the camera on a mobile device, translates the text to another language, and displays the translation on the device’s screen. Right in the live image you’re looking at. Of course, it has its limitations, and isn’t quite perfect yet. But when it works, which seems to be most of the time, it’s phenomenal.
Word Lens was designed to be used on the go, when confronted with signs or menus in a foreign language. It runs on Android and iOS devices, as well as on Google Glass, for which it’s shown to be one of the more fascinating applications.
The app uses Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to detect text in its view. As such, it works best with clearly printed lettering, and really isn’t built to decode handwriting or artistic or stylized lettering. But for a tourist trying to read signs in a foreign country, it excels.
A real-time translation engine delivers an instant translation into an assortment of available languages. Here’s where it gets even cooler: Word Lens doesn’t require an internet connection to work. The translation is all done on your device.
Having translated your text, the next step is cooler yet, and here’s the augmented reality aspect. Word Lens replaces the text from the camera into your chosen language, almost instantaneously. The appearance of the replacement text is accurate and convincing, and even retains the font and styling of whatever you’re reading. For even more fun, you can also reverse the text and erase it. I’m not sure what practical applications this will have in the future, but for now, it’s just another demonstration of the awesomeness of this product.
Take a peek at the app in action, from its official demo:
The news of this acquisition comes right on the heels of Google’s announcement that Google Glass, its wearable device with a head-mounted display, will now be available to the general public. But according to what we’ve heard from Quest Visual, it’s not Glass, but Google Translate into which Word Lens is being assimilated. This should prove to be an excellent acquisition for Google. Translate is already a powerful tool for on-the-fly translations, as I learned on a trip to Spain not too long ago, where it enabled me to converse rather successfully with shopkeepers, whose knowledge of English seemed only slightly better than my very limited understanding of Spanish.
Google has already had some text-recognition capability through Google Goggles, which uses processing in the cloud, and thus requires a data connection. Word Lens does all of this locally, which not only improves speed dramatically, but it’s also now accessible even for a world traveler without an international data plan.
I’m fascinated by the idea of augmented reality, much of which is still in the proof-of-concept phase. Word Lens, especially as a part of Google’s suite, gives us a taste of where this technology may be heading. OCR has improved greatly over the years, as evidenced by tools like Project Naptha, which unlocks text in image files for editing and translating. Word Lens takes this all out into the field.
Since the Vision Quest announcement talks of “joining Google”, it seems likely that the product will be phased out and and assimilated into Translate. For the moment, it’s still available as a standalone app, and all language packs are now free. Give it a test, if you haven’t already, and let us know what you think.