Say you're staring at a foreign menu, trying to decipher some unfamiliar dishes. You worry you might accidentally order frog brains. What should you do?
Well…you could whip out your smart phone and snap a pic of the menu. Your cell phone could "read" the text in the image and then translate the words for you. Pretty neat, huh?
That's the ultimate vision behind the weirdly named Goggles Translate—an app that turns your phone into a point-and-shoot translator. It's a free download for phones that use Google's Android operating system, such as the T-Mobile G1 and the Motorola Cliq. It'll eventually be available for other phones, too.
I tested the app this weekend at a French restaurant in New York. I was interested in trying andouillette, so I took a pic of the word. On the phone's screen, a blue line appeared and moved across the image of the menu. About 20 seconds later, Google let me know that andouillette is sausage made from pig intestines.
I wasn't sure what that might taste like, but at least it wasn't frog brains.
On the bright side, I shot a photo, and then picked a language to translate from ("French") and a language to translate into ("English"). So far, the app can read text in five languages: English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish. In a nice move, it works without requiring you to type words into a cell phone's tiny keyboard, physical or virtual. It just takes a few clicks to use.
The bad news is that Google's translations can be a bit hit-or-miss in this early version. If your cell phone's camera lens isn't sharp, then Google won't be able to accurately read the text in your images.
The translations will also be irritatingly slow if you don't have a fast Web connection.
But any free app that saves me from accidentally eating frog brains is a wonderful thing.
Go to the Android Market on your phone and search for "Google Goggles."
Follow up: Using your cell phone in Europe