Machine Translation Meets Augmented Reality

As with many of you, my Facebook and Twitter friend feeds are littered with overlapping circles of contacts. Some I know well, have worked with in the past, and are great friends personally. Others I have met only once or twice.  Though as a rule I have none of my current work colleagues as Facebook friends. (Sadly, I had to unfriend someone recently as we started working together again, but we both agreed it was better that way.)  Occasionally two circles overlap directly (the time one FB friend was tagged in a photo from another FB friend that I didn’t think knew each other), or sometimes the circles overlap around topics. That is what happened this week.

My former translation services colleagues were buzzing about a new App for iPhone called Word Lens that allegedly allows you to point your phone at a street sign for example and receive an instant translation of what it says. Wow! For anyone who has traveled in a foreign country, what a truly amazing, and useful app. If only it worked (more on that in a moment).

At the same time, folks I met sort of tangentially in life who are closely tracking the rise of Augmented Reality were quick to point out that this was one of the first truly relevant AR Apps that they had seen. For those who are not familiar, AR is a movement to overlay useful information about things you might be looking at through your phone. For example you are walking through Hyde Park in London, come to the “Physical Energy statue,” point your phone at it and using maps and global positioning, on screen details about the statue come up like that it was sculpted in 1904 by GF Watts.

If the hype is true, these kind of Apps will be amazingly helpful for travelers. I say “if,” Apps plural, and “will be” because Word Lens wasn’t the first App to the party, and hopefully isn’t the best.  This article on MSNBC suggests that the translation is pretty bad with some pretty funny examples.  And in the comments (I love the reading the comments!) another firm called LinguaSys touts their App as being way better. Is that just sour grapes and poor marketing? I am not sure, the market will surely decide.

There are bound to be others firms as well, I haven’t done an exhaustive search on the subject. Here are a few obvious firms who could jump into this, and may have already:

>Google themselves could easily ramp this up using the fairly robust Google Translate service.  (pretty good for gisting by the way)

>IBM has spent a lifetime on Machine Translation, seems like they could easily over engineer something faster than you can say “Smarter Planet!”.

>What about Wikipedia? Where are they on mobile?  Couldn’t they crowdsource the top 1000 or so most common street signs/words by language and then write an App that queries that pool?

>The translations agencies could easily get in on this as well.  Lionbridge for one has a massive database of previously translated terms numbering in the billions, seems like they could roll an app out pretty easily.

The list is long I imagine. But on this one I am siding with my Augmented Reality connections. As someone who has stared at the signs in foreign countries in baffled and slightly panicked amusement THIS is a good idea.

Let’s hope it gets real.


3 Responses

  1. I have the Word Lens app and for those of us who don’t know the correct interpretation of words (English to Spanish is what I have), it is very cool. I have no idea if the interpretation is correct and I guess the downside is that I will probably embed in my mind a lot of these intepretations. At the same time, it is fun and the business model of getting you to pay for each type of usage makes me think they have a good future.

  2. Good insights Dana, glad to hear that Word Lens might work. Given the buzz, it seems clear that some sort of app in this space is needed. Will see how it shakes out!

  3. […] Machine Translation Meets Augmented Reality […]

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