App translates signs and menus in real time

A new iPhone app is claimed to give an instant translation of the written word, allowing tourists to read foreign signs, menus and the like.

Initially available for Spanish-to-English only, developers Quest Visual say they plan to add new languages in time. There’s a video of Word Lens in action on the company’s website, here.

It’s based on the phone’s camera and text recognition software and, as you’d expect, works best on clearly printed lettering – handwriting is too much for it. Users can also type in a phrase to be translated. It doesn’t even need Wifi or an internet connection to work.

The translation is carried out on a word-by-word basis so it’s not perfect. But it doesn’t seem that much worse than Google Translate, giving at least the general meaning – enough to make sure you don’t order anything too revolting in a restaurant, at any rate.

It requires an iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, or iPod Touch with video camera – iOS 4.0 or later – but the company points out that the iPhone 3GS and iPod Touch don’t have zoom or flash light features, and the iPod Touch camera doesn’t have auto-focus, which could dramatically affect the app’s performance.

Word Lens is available now for $4.99 from the App Store, and seems to have a five-star rating from everybody that’s tried it out.