Through a Glass Darkly, with Windex

by Translation Guy on April 8, 2011

Word Lens is an iPhone app that will translate Spanish signs through the iPhone camera, as posted here a few weeks (or is it months?) ago.

A few days after that post, the CEO, John DeWeese, sent me a message on LinkedIn:

“I enjoyed your blog entry on Word Lens, but my favorite part of it prevented me from replying in comment form—after all, I’m no 50 cent troop! There’s just the two of us over here at Quest Visual, former video game programmers who wanted to take a stab at an important problem. We’re not paid to hock party lines, but I do want to set people’s expectations.

“I had heard about 1-800-translate a few years ago. I have great respect for what you guys do, and we are truly newbies in comparison. But we both know the value of this problem, so it’s worth a look from our wildly different perspectives.

“We got caught in a viral video storm. Meh. It’s more important for me to go through the looking glass, darkly first if need be, to figure out how to do it right. Within a month, the interwebs have told us that:
1. Our translations stink
2. It’s still worth doing

“So we’re going with it. Gotta put the idea out in practical form, if the business is to survive.”

I was really impressed by John’s candor, and was anxious to talk with him, since he would certainly be dropping the F-bomb and I would get all these great quotes. As it turns out, all the F-bombs were mine (hardly surprising) and I forgot to record the conversation, so no quotes either. But I learned a lot about translation apps on iPhones, and I hope to enlist the comments of readers so that John and I can learn more.

Word Lens was conceived as a tool that could be used by tourists to find their way around foreign cities. So John’s idea was that the phone had to be able to function in real-time on- or off- line. Latency is a show stopper, which, if you think about it, is the big problem with translation in general. The reason we settle for the Google Translation app is because it’s right now, accuracy be damned. The reason doctors won’t use my telephone interpreters to save patients’ lives. Time is short.

So for an application that magically translates what it sees, every millisecond counts, so coding has to be short and sweet and has to run in the tiny computer residing in each Smartphone. John and his partner did all their coding from scratch, using none of the optical character recognition or translation engines publically available to make it all fit.

So the translation sucks. So what? Free translation is supposed to suck. The problem is when you start charging for it. Getting pinged in the Apple App Store is a Rubicon few free users will cross, as I can attest from personal experience.

John says, “We captured the imagination of the whole idea of augmented reality, but we want it to be a tool that is actually useful and handy.” So is it? It’s impossible to tell from the reviews on the app store, which are about as useful as YouTube comments in gaining insight into the user experience. “This app sucks because it isn’t free!” and stuff like that, so unlike the erudite seekers-of-knowledge who post here.

For augmented reality enthusiasts, this is a big deal. But since I find un-augmented reality pretty overwhelming, I’m sceptical about adding more input.  Has anyone found this app useful beyond the “gee-wiz” factor? I’d love to hear your war-stories.



  1. Lynn S says:

    For a free app as long as it can get you by with the basics to communicate with others and they understand then 100% accuracy isnt a necessity. The app does its purpose that it was intended to and I see the app as being useful.

  2. Jeanne Lin says:

    “Mutual understanding would be immensely facilitated by the use of one universal tongue.” – Nikola Tesla

  3. Alice says:

    I downloaded the app and the English-to-Spanish & Spanish-to-English languages then took it for a spin. I went around my very bilingual town and it did a nice job translating the signs around town.

  4. Before I comment on this….I wanna say, that because it’s in a cellphone….it is extremely useful…..which brings me to my point… a college prof…I have always had the world’s supply of interns…and in 2000, we wrote a browser, that could translate as one of many functions, but it read STRINGS of text, so grammar wasn’t an issue. While this IS handy, like I said, it’s pretty primative. But hey, $5 is $5..damn good deal for vacations and such.

  5. Remember those days whereby we had to bring a dictionary with us to school everyday? Rummage through the pages for 3 mins to find the word, read and understand its meaning for another 3 mins just to understand ONE foreign word in a storybook?! 6 mins WASTED to understand ONE WORD!

  6. Taylor Daine says:

    If it’s for reading things then it’s incredibly useful and you’re being far far too hard on it. People don’t use signs to communicate–they put up signs to get across simple information.

    Even if it translated into “Beach Shark Use Danger” you would get the meaning. If you were reading a menu the grammar would be less important than the descriptions and ingredients. Is that shellfish or potatoes?

  7. Theodore says:

    For those of you who don’t know what augmented reality is, it’s a term for a live direct or an indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input, such as sound or graphics. As far as AR apps go, this isn’t bad

  8. EvilHomer says:

    who wrote the original spanish signs, some of them have completely wrong syntax, as if someones just used google translate instead of asking a spanish speaking person

    • Ken says:

      Good eye, EvilHomer. That was GoogleTranslate

  9. Willie Pitts says:

    I don’t think the real impact of such an application can be truly understood. We’re so close to the ‘universal translator’ of Star Trek lore… and it even looks like a Star Trek gadget to boot!

  10. how about a real-time auditory language translator? You pop in your headphones, and the app translates incoming voices to your native language.

    • Ken says:

      Google does just that. And its not that bad.

  11. Art says:

    This wasn’t one of my best app purchases, it could use a little more work on the grammatical side

  12. we’ve come a long way but there’s still a long way to go. 1 language should be the lite version with options to purchase more at the current asking price. Spanish/english seems like a logical way to go with the 1st attempt because there are so many sister languages that can be translated…i’m making it sould too easy, though i know future versions will require the same amount of time and dedication

  13. Alfred Koch says:

    These translation apps are looking better and better.
    i have been looking around the for the best one recently, because my wife and I are planning to go visit family in Holland. Having a good app to help translate a couple things along the way would be perfect.

  14. u said it, latency sucks and if you had to have connectivity for the app to translate…that’s a deal breaker

  15. Snuggles says:

    They really need to support more languages, but it’s still very cool

  16. The app is actually not that accurate… as a native spanish speaker, I can confirm that the grammar is off most of the time due to the variety and complexity of our language’s grammar. However, it does seem pretty neat and the user can still get the overall idea of what the translation means… nice job :)

  17. This does dictionary translation, that is, no grammar at all. So, most of the time, they’re pretty crappy translations. They can prove a little useful if you don’t have any idea of other languages, but it’s not (yet substitute for the real thing.

    • Ken says:

      The machine translation engine needs very little memory to run, so quality can’t match those produced down on the server farms at Google

  18. Billie says:

    does anyone remember those books that you couold swipe the pen across and it would read back to you? That is really what we need to be going for, a universal translation pen!!

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