Two of the most impressive Android applications, “Goggles” and “Translate”, promise to allow you to read, write, understand and speak another language.

Since I switched over to the HTC Desire a few months ago, I’ve been avidly scouring the Android market for the latest and coolest applications. Two applications which really stood out for me were “Goggles” and “Translate” – both from Google. Combined the two applications are incredibly powerful – they give you the potential to read, write, speak and understand in another language even if you don’t know a single word of it. The applications can translate signs, voice and text between your native language and another language. In fact, you could think of the two apps as a very primitive version of the universal translator in Star Trek – a fictional device which would abolish language barriers by transparently translating between languages and allowing everyone can understand each another without having to learn a new language.

To follow the instructions in this tutorial, you’ll need to install Goggles and Translate on your phone. We’ve got more information on our guide to Android applications. Furthermore, if your phone doesn’t have the voice-to-text libraries built-in (e.g. HTC Desire) you’ll need to install those too.

Google Goggles: Translating signs, menus and images

The first of the two applications is Google Goggles. Goggles is Google’s visual search application – the application allows you to take a photo of something (such as a landmark, business card or barcode) and searches for related contextual information. Recently, Googles integrated optical character recognition and translation into Goggles. This means it is possible to take a photograph of text in another language and to have Goggles translate it into your native language.

Step 1: Take a photograph of some text in a different language.

In this example, I’ve used a sign from a railway station in France. (Unfortunately it was prohibitively expensive to travel to France for the purposes of this articles so instead I’ve taken a photo of a photo taken in France!)

Step 2: Google Goggles will apply OCR and detect the text within the image

Here we can see that Goggles has extracted the text “Composition des trains” from the photograph I took. It is showing me the search results for that phrase and also giving me a one-click button to translate the text into English.

Step 3: Translation into English

A click on the “Translate” button shows me the meaning of the sign in English. I also have the option of correcting the input text here if the OCR system made some mistakes.

Google Translate: Translating voice, text

Google Translate is the second application which we need. Originally designed as an Android interface to Google’s translation website, the application now integrates voice input (providing you have the necessary libraries on your phone) and a text-to-speech engine (Stephen Hawking style). It really does allow you to say something in your native language, and the phone will translate it and speak it back to you in another language.

Step 1: Say something in English

If you’ve got the necessary libraries installed, there is a microphone icon in Google Translate. Press this and then say something in English. I asked “Do you speak English?”.

Step 2: Translate applies voice recognition to what has been said and then translates it

Here we can see that Translate has recognised what I said in English and has translated it into French. By pressing on the speaker icon, the phone will now read the French translation out loud.

Why is this so exciting?

The real power of these applications is how Google have combined several technologies together. For Goggles, it’s optical character recognition (OCR) with translation. For Translate, it’s voice recognition, translation and text-to-speech. These technologies have been around for years but are usually used independently: the real genius of these two applications is how they have combined several technologies to provide a great product.

Concorde, Heathrow 1987
Creative Commons License photo: PhillipC

The other reason why this specific implementation is exciting is because it is mobile-based. Unlike desktop PCs or laptops, we really do carry our phones everywhere and keep them on 24/7. A PC based translator is never going to be useful in our everyday lives as PCs are confined to a desk – whereas a mobile-based application can integrate into our lives much more seamlessly.

What are the drawbacks with Goggles/Translate?

Obviously, this is still no real substitute to learning a language the old fashioned way. There are several key reasons:

  • There are errors in the process of translation. As I’ve discussed, both Goggles and Translate combine several different technologies and processes together. Each of those processes can introduce errors. For example we could have an error in voice recognition compounded with a translation error and then a mispronunciation in the text-to-speech engine. The combination of the three errors could make the result entirely unintelligible.
  • I can barely understand the results of the text-to-speech engine in English! I suspect the text-to-speech engines for other languages don’t fare much better.
  • At present, it is impossible to use a smartphone abroad without running up a huge data/internet bill. This makes it entirely infeasible to use Goggles/Translate on holiday. This can be mitigated by ensuring your phone is unlocked and then buying a local SIM card at your destination country.
  • The process is too slow. True: if you have a high-speed 3G data connection the whole end-to-end translation process might only take 4 or 5 seconds. But if you’re trying to understand a menu in French, you don’t want to go through each item on the menu taking an image, waiting for Goggles to translate it and then making a mental note of each translation. You want it to work instantly and transparently.

That said, Goggles and Translate are still fantastic toys and are still incredibly useful. The applications are both very impressive and I look forward to revisiting this review in 5 years time – with another 5 years of progress in OCR, voice recognition, translation & text-to-speech technology, I would not be too surprised if a “Universal Translator” begins to look more like science fact than science fiction.

Google Goggles and Google Translate are Android applications and are available from Android Market. Android runs on a variety of phones but I personally recommend the HTC Desire which is available from all 6 of the UK’s major networks.

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