Word Lens: How Google can help confused tourists in Japan

In an early scene of the 2003 film “Lost in Translation”, Billy Murray’s character travels in a taxi through bustling Tokyo streets. He stares, open mouthed, at the brightly-lit signs, covered with symbols he cannot understand. Indeed, although linguistic barriers may create difficulties for all tourists the Japanese language’s use of 3 different writing systems, with thousands of different characters, may pose particular challenges. So, does the weary traveller have any options other than attempting learn a notoriously difficult language, or accepting a constant lack of comprehension?

Google claims to hold the solution to this problem with its “Word Lens” feature, which makes use of augmented reality (AR) technology. In theory, it is only necessary to download the “Google Translate” app on a smartphone and point the camera at a piece of text. An English translation will then appear on the smartphone screen, superimposed on the original source-language text. Google claims it works even without being connected to the internet. This represents an improvement on the service previously offered by Google, which allowed users to take a photo of Japanese text and get a translation in English.

However, as with all machine translation services, the key question is whether the technology can actually stand up to the ambitious claims made about it. Rich McCormick, a British journalist living in Japan tested the technology out in a piece for the Verge. Although he found the feature useful in deciphering lists of ingredients, street signs, warning notices and even political posters, in other cases even getting the gist proved to be difficult. Using the technology on d bills and tax documents led to incomprehensible and sometimes hilarious results. A sentence meaning “currently accepting applications” was rendered as “Tsukuba in the ox”. Problems were also posed by the formatting of text. Curved cans proved difficult for the machine translator to decipher, as did non-standard font widths.

Nevertheless, it should be remembered that even a few years ago, technology such as “Word Lens” would have been inconceivable. The constant and fast-paced improvement of machine-translation engines means that this simply represents a first step. Given that it is inevitable that the system would have its flaws, it is perhaps better to focus on whether the system actually performs a useful function. Indeed, Rich McCormick claims that it may prove invaluable to tourists confused about what train to catch, what the items on a menu are or how to get to a museum. “Lost in Translation” may have been a very different film if the characters had been able to use “Word Lens”.







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