There have been a few articles and a lot of comment in EET recently on the subject of Google self-driving cars. Reaction has been mixed, but there are a few other things that Google has done recently that are just as clever, if not so obviously life-changing.
If you’ve opened up the Google search home page recently you may have come across a link to “Google Translate vs La Bamba”. We’ve probably all used Google translate on a PC to translate something from another language, but the Google Translate smartphone app is something else. This very clever app combines character recognition and translation skills. You point your phone’s camera at what you want to translate and it finds, translates and posts in the translated text on the fly. The video uses the lyrics of “La Bamba” to demonstrate (go on, go and have a look, you know you want to!).
There is another video here showing the main developer talking about it and how it’s done. There are some clever guys around. This second video shows some very practical uses for this – translating road signs, menus etc. It would be really good to have while travelling.
I downloaded this onto my iPad – it’s free, and it is, naturally, also available for Android devices. It comes across as not quite as slick as the video, but probably only because I was trying it on some small text (which it has trouble with – large bold text works best), and also because it works much better if the viewed text is still – if it moves it retries the translation, and small text exacerbates this problem. I used it in English to French mode as I did not have any French or other language text available. Really it is very clever and on large text it IS fairly quick and accurate. One thing I tried it on was a newsletter with a guy’s name on it – Steve Butler. It translated his name into “Steven Maître d'hôtel“ which I will try on the gentleman next time I see him. And I did try bringing up some French road signs on my PC and translating them. Results varied – the text on road signs is rarely very grammatically correct and resulted in some fairly humorous translations. But all in all it would probably get you out of trouble in a pinch.
When I saw the video I thought, “What if you could speak a phrase into your phone and have it repeated in another language?” Visions of huge payouts from a grateful Google for this brilliant idea were going through my head, but as usual I was too late – their app already does this. I have to report, though, that it does not do too well with my Zimbabwean accent. I think it can learn your accent though, which would be quite something in my case. As it is, visions of Monty Python’s Hungarian Phrasebook skit went through my mind and along with it, visions of being punched in the nose if I try and use it to ask for a beer in Mongolia. It works with Mongolian, and a huge list of other languages including Chinese, Japanese and Arabic, which the developer in the second video said were really difficult to cope with. Zimbabwean is not a language in itself, so I’ll just have to try to talk to it nicely, but Afrikaans (South Africa) and several other African languages are on the list. So it’s pretty exhaustive.
The other thing I have come across recently is Google Cardboard . This is a “poor man’s” virtual reality headset, consisting of a cardboard frame which holds a smartphone, and a couple of convex lenses – you can buy one pretty cheaply or make your own from plans.
The app on the smartphone displays two pictures on the screen which when looked at through the lenses give you a 3-D view. I first was first shown this by the daughter of a friend, and it blew me away with the results you get from something so simple. It’s kinda like the stereo viewers you may have had as a kid, but you can make it yourself, and it does movies as well. AND a lot of the apps are interactive, so as you move you head around, the image you see moves as well, as if you’re looking around. You can fly around the world (using Google Earth), explore the Solar System, take virtual tours, watch Paul McCartney perform “Live and let die” and even shoot up Zombies (especially for Max). And play games, and much more…
One of the more ingenious aspects of Google Cardboard is a small magnet on an elastic band which can move slightly. This is because you cannot touch the screen, which is how you usually interact with the phone. Moving the magnet is sensed by the phone’s magnetometer (compass sensor) and performs the same function.
As with Google Translate, you can get apps for iPhone and Android phones to work with Google Cardboard. Some apps are free, and some cost a few dollars.
Although these are not earth-shattering inventions, they’re free or nearly so, and practical and fun. I think they’re a great use of the embedded processing power of our smartphones. If you’ve used either of these, tell us what you think of them below.