Although Word Lens has been around for a few years, the app has somehow slipped under the radar of folks, such as international business travelers, who could most make use of it. The big news right now is that Word Lens has been purchased by Google (GOOG) and is, for a limited time, completely free. You should install it right now, even before you finish reading this article. It's that good.
Imagine the ability to point your iPhone's camera at simple text and have it immediately translated into your native language. That's exactly what Word Lens does. The app works with many kinds of printed material -- signs, menus, books -- and in an augmented reality sort of way, replaces the words in the live view onscreen with their English equivalents. In a very real way, it's like holding a functional Star Trek Universal Translator in your hands.
In the past, the app was free but the language packs -- which handled English-to-German and German-to-English, for example -- cost $10 each. When Google purchased Word Lens, it dropped the price of all the packs to free. That means you can get the app and all the languages, including German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and French -- for no charge. Each pack is surprisingly small (the app and all of the languages combined weigh in at a mere 134MB), so you can install all of them in advance of your next international trip as an inoculation against higher prices later.
To use Word Lens, you simply select the language pair you want to translate between and point your phone at the text requiring translation. After a moment, the foreign language will resolve into the selected language.
So how well does it work? Although it's far from perfect, surprisingly well. But in a real sense, it's miraculous that it works at all, and that it works well enough to be truly functional is akin to science fiction. Most of the time, words will pop in and out of translation as you hold the camera at some text, because of the "camera shake" incurred by hand-holding the phone.
Acknowledging that, there's a Pause button on-screen to lock in a good translation for later review, though the app needs to become more forgiving of camera movement and no re-translate the screen continuously when the text moves within the frame. Also, Word Lens works best with simple, sans serif fonts. It can't translate fancy script at all. So it works best with signage and simply formatted restaurant menus; don't expect to translate a hand-written note or the breezy script at a 5-star restaurant.
All that said, Word Lens is an absolutely essential tool for your traveling toolkit. You shouldn't expect to read a novel with it, but it's highly functional for typical travel scenarios. And best of all, Word Lens works even if you turn off your data plan when you're abroad. Unlike Google Maps and all the other "essential" travel and translation apps that abandon you when you try to avoid data-roaming charges, Word Lens does not use an Internet connection to do its translating.
Photo courtesy of Word Lens