The instant translation iPhone application World Lens 1.0 was released yesterday from San Francisco-based developer Quest Visual. The free app uses the built-in smartphone video camera and its own optical text-recognition software to translate in real-time.

The basic Word Lens app comes with demonstration modes, such as Reverse Words and Erase Words, which exhibit its functionality but offer little more than a moment's entertainment. The language packs are discounted at half-off, or $4.99 each until the end of the year, and are only immediately available in Spanish-to-English and English-to-Spanish.

An extremely useful travel tool, the software does not require network connection, which is especially appropriate for those outside of their home country, when any data usage results in staggering charges.

The translation quality does depend on certain conditions - it works best on clearly printed text, not on "handwriting or stylized fonts," as Quest Visual's own product description clarifies. Similarly, the text must be in focus, and the meaning can be off sometimes. Since the individual words are translated, not entire phrases, any idiom is lost. But as anyone who has used Google Translate for Web sites and other material knows, current translation technology is still an evolving process.

"Welcome to the Future... Word Lens is a dictionary - evolved," claims the introductory video, but the reviews have been mixed. TechCrunch delivered a glowing review, gushing, "This is what the future, literally, looks like." The Optical Character Recognition performs, as referenced in the article, as "might as well as be magic."

But not everyone had such a positive experience. ReadWriteWeb received less than satisfying results. "After buying it and testing it, though, I can tell you that at least in my limited experience it is more likely to result in motion sickness and chuckles than helpful navigation," Marshall Kirkpatrick laments in his review. Since the program translates words in real-time, if the phone is not steady, the letters pop in and out of their translated state.

Quest Visual plans to expand to more language coverage in coming updates, most likely French, Italian and Portuguese.

By Ivory King