Every day we seem to move a little closer to developing the equivalent of Douglas Adams' legendary Babel Fish: a device that allows instant translation, transcending the language barrier and enabling universal communication. The idea of the Babel Fish has fascinated me from the first time I read The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, and I find it incredible that just 15 or so years later, what I originally thought to be a quirky yet impossible invention is fast approaching realization.
Of course, machine translation has been around us for a while - from Altavista's Babelfish service and Google Translate, Google Goggles and speech-to-speech translation - but never before has it been realized so clearly and so simply.
The software in question is called Word Lens, marketing itself as "a dictionary, evolved"; and the idea is simple. Using augmented reality (a rather complicated sounding term meaning taking visuals from a camera and overlaying other data on top of it) together with translation algorithms, the concept is that you point your phone at some foreign text, and you the translation replaces the text on your screen. Instantly.
Here's a video of Word Lens in action - believe it or not, this is actually how it works:
It may not recognize handwritten or particularly stylized printed text, but it's good enough for signs, menus and the like.
Unbelievably the software is available for free from Apple's App Store, though you have to purchase certain language pairs in order to enable translation (currently only English <-> Spanish is supported, but more languages are on the way). It works with all Apple devices with a camera with autofocus (iPhone 4, 3GS or the new iPod Touch with video camera), with firmware version 4.0 and above.
The demo version reverses the letters in words instead of translating them, but it still demonstrates that the software recognizes the words (and it does it well, too). Adding the translation layer is pretty simple from there, but you have to pay for it.
This kind of thing would be invaluable while on vacation, on a business trip, or in any situation where you need to be able to understand your surroundings.
Admittedly, it's not quite a Babel Fish, but we're getting closer every time... it won't be long now!