I don’t often get excited about mobile apps (heck, I haven’t even downloaded Angry Birds yet) but as far as I’m concerned, this one is the best thing since sliced bread: Google Goggles, part of the official Google app. It’s a piece of image recognition software that uses pictures you take with your mobile camera to search the web. In a nutshell: search with images instead of words. It’s not perfect yet, but it does seem to be good at recognizing things like logos, landmarks, and so on. To give you an example, I was able to take a picture of Dogs Playing Poker and it knew what it was. On the other hand, I took a picture of a logo off a bottle of Brio Chinotto and it couldn’t tell it from a no-smoking sign.
But by far the most exciting feature of Google Goggles is that it will recognize text—block letters, not necessarily handwritten—and translate it. I tried it with some bilingual signs on an OC Transpo bus here in Ottawa and the translation turned out to be more or less correct. Here’s how it works:
Take a picture of some sort of text. It should be fairly legible; I figure block letters are best. OCR isn’t the best at picking up messy letters. Goggles will find the text in your picture and tell you what it sees. In this case, it’s pretty close.
Click through to the translation screen, and you’ll see Google Translate giving you roughly what the words say. It’ll automatically tell what language is displayed and translate it into English (or whatever else).
Now, at the moment, Goggles seems to only be able to recognize a small subset of languages, among them English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. It definitely seems to work best at recognizing languages written in Latin characters. It was even able to recognize some Vietnamese text I found, although the sentence it spat back at me was mostly garbage. I tried it on a number of other alphabets that use non-latin scripts—Chinese characters, Russian, Lao, and Thai—and didn’t have any luck; it didn’t even recognize them as language. That would probably be my main request to the Goggles team—recognizing non-latin scripts, especially things like Chinese, Thai, Korean and Japanese. Definitely a promising app, though, with sweeping potentialities: imagine if you could understand any shop sign you came by on your trip to China, or Japan, or wherever, just by snapping a picture of it with your smartphone?