A Washcloth, AND An Iron?

Frequent readers of this blog may recall a rant this past year about travelling in Europe and not having a washcloth or an iron.

Over the last year, it has become my barometer to determine if the hotel is serious about international travelers. Have either a washcloth or an iron and you are at least realizing that people from America might be coming to visit you.

At risk of sounding like a crass American who likes things his way, it was with great pleasure to arrive at the lovely Westbury Mayfair hotel in London and find BOTH a washcloth AND an Iron in the room.  And I appreciated the speed that they got the room ready since I showed up several hours before check-in.

Now I just need to remember what I am supposed to tip people around here!




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.

Photostream: Alleys Around the World

I admit it, I like taking pictures of alleys.

My wife chuckled at me a few years ago when she noticed my habit when we are off on a trip together.  But I can’t help it. I find it fascinating to consider the possibilities of what is “just over there.” I also marvel at the way perspective shifts as you look down the street from the one you are on. And yes we do often wander off the beaten path to explore, but sometimes it’s more interesting to keep it unknown, a mystery.

As part of my work I have the good fortune to travel to some pretty interesting places. While not as well travelled as many people I know, I consider myself lucky to have been to places like Jerusalem, Agra (home of the Taj Mahal), Dublin, Prague, Munich, Göteborg, the UK and others, as well as fascinating cities right here in the US.

On those trips I started packing a small point and shoot camera, and I also upgraded the storage on my Blackberry. I have taken hundreds of pictures over the past two years as a result. Some of them are pretty good, and some of them pretty much suck (which I try to delete). But I am most struck by those Alleys, Gates and other vistas that I have captured.

So rather than post a photo stream of mediocre pictures of places that are well chronicled by other, more accomplished  photographers, I posted a set on Flickr of just those Alleys.  For now they are essentially the raw photos. As I get more time I will edit some of them for impact, weed out some of the marginal ones, and add to it as I travel to new and interesting places.

I hope you enjoy the stream!