Augmented-reality applications have promised to revolutionize the way we live on the go with our smartphones, but none have fully delivered yet.
This may be changing. A new free iPhone app called Word Lens shows remarkable promise for helping international travelers.
Word Lens uses the phone's video camera and processor to interpret printed words and almost instantly translate them between English and Spanish.
Those traveling abroad could hold the phone in front of their eyes to decipher a foreign-language street sign. The app projects the translated words onto whatever sign at which you point the phone.
This could be a leap forward for augmented-reality apps, which normally employ cameras and GPS systems to merge the physical world with information compiled about people and places on the internet.
Word Lens is the fruit of two-and-a-half years of work from a small outfit called Quest Visual, run by Otavio Good, a former game developer, and John DeWeese, who worked on the Electronic Arts game "Spore."
"The tourism market is really very large," Good told CNN in a phone interview Monday. "I want to sell this to all the tourists in the world."
Google's Goggles app has the capability to translate text or identify objects in an image. But it requires users to take a picture with their phones. Word Lens does it on the fly, meaning it's interpreting frames in video, almost in real time. A similar app called LookTel, designed to help blind people, scans print on objects such as packages of food and reads them aloud.
Word Lens has posted a video demonstration of how to use the app. The free version of the app can match fonts and erase text from a scene. It's only available for the iPhone, but work has already begun on an Android version.
Right now, the app can only translate between English and Spanish. (Each language package costs $4.99.) Quest Visual says it plans to add dictionaries to support other languages soon. Adding each language will take a few months of fine tuning, Good estimates.
"It's a little rough around the edges," Good said. "But it's going to get better."
Translations for sentences can be somewhat crude. Still, the app may be useful to any traveler trying to decipher a sign or cafe menu in a Spanish-language country, or vice versa.