Word Lens: A Great Google Audition

I'm no business guru, but from the moment Word Lens splashed onto the iPhone App Store, developer Quest Visual seemed like an obvious candidate for a Google acquisition.

Quest Visual's iPhone app translates text in real time when held in front of the phone's camera. And Word Lens doesn't just give you a plain translation, it literally swaps old text for new on your screen, as if the thing you're looking at was never in a foreign language at all.

As several publications have noted, the app is imperfect. It only supports English and Spanish for now -- the business model lies in the sale of additional language packs -- and the translation doesn't always work right (sometimes with disastrous results). I haven't tried Word Lens, because $5 for what seems like a tech demo is too rich for my blood.

Thing is, Google is moving along the same track with Google Goggles. Part of the Google Mobile feature for iPhone and Android lets you snap a photo of text and get a translation from the web.

Where Word Lens falters, Google excels. By drawing on a huge database that allows users to suggest better translations, Google Translate is always improving, so the chances of getting a bad translation will decrease with time. Google Goggles also supports more languages, with the goal of eventually supporting non-Latin languages as well. Word Lens, conversely, will always be limited by its offline dictionary, which plays a big role in providing fast translations on the fly.

So maybe this means Google and Quest Visual are actually incompatible. I certainly hope not, because they could be wonderful together.

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