The Technological Guide to a Foreign Language

Two month ago, I moved to Germany, and unfortunately I did not speak a word of German. Here is a set of tools I have been using to be able to find my way in this foreign language:

Browsing the web: Chrome

Of course, Chrome (desktop and mobile) has a built-in translation feature. When navigating to a German website, an instant translation of the entire website seamlessly replaces the original one. I find the user experience quite good, because seemless.

Chrome's translation bar
Chrome’s translation bar

Instant translation in the street: Word Lens

You stumble upon a sign in the street, and have no clue about what it is saying. First thing that comes in mind is to open the Google Translate application on your mobile, it even does not require an internet connection thanks to the offline download of language packages. Unfortunately this would require re-typing the text in the input field (the picture input does not work offline, and has poor results).

The solution I am using for quick and dirty translations is Word Lens. If you never heard of it, it is an augmented reality app that replaces real-world texts by its translation. Here is the promotional video and a real-life usage example:

left: real world, right: same scene through Word Lens
left: real world, right: same scene through Word Lens

It is a great combination of interesting technologies: real time OCR, translation and image manipulation (to incorporate the final result on the original image). It gives instant result in its more natural way, which is a great user experience. Unfortunately, for its price, I think that its stability and user interface could be improved.

I’m really looking forward to try this using Google Glass, the great news is that apparently an  app is already available. It will remove the need to pull out the phone and launch the app, however, is will not be full augmented reality as Google Glass is only a Head-up display.

Translating paper documents: OCR

The worst is when the data is not available digitally, for example, received official documents. Translating them word by word or manually re-typing them were not options when you receive a 10 page health insurance contracts. Once again, free online Google tools can help with this task:

    1. Scan: Unfortunately, a scanner is needed to get a PDF file containing black and white images of your document. A simple “portable scanner” can be very handy, but ideally a multi-page scanner is even faster. In my case, I wait the next day to scan them at the office.
    2. OCR: Drag and drop the scanned PDF to the Google Drive website, make sure to enable the conversion to the Google Docs format on import. This will create a Google Doc document containing images of the scanned pages and the automatically extracted text in its original language.


    1. Translate: The final step is to translate the text, no copy paste needed, Google can translate a full text document to a new one, keeping its layout and style.


  1. Profit: You end up with the entire document translated from German to English. Below each original scanned image you find the translated text with a similar formatting. And if like me you prefer to archive digitally your papers, the great side effect is that you have scanned your paper.

Learning: Duolingo

Of course, nothing will replace to actually know the language. While old-school lessons and grammar books are very often the best strategy, I have to mention duolingo, a really great application for progressive and regular lessons

The german skill tree of the Android duolingo app
The german skill tree of the Android duolingo app

Duolingo is a free mobile and desktop application will help you learn a new language using game mechanisms : your goal is to increase your level, you earn points each time you complete a lesson, you have to unlock current skill packages before going further…

The learning curve is really well designed so that you are making progress each time you use the app. The fact that it is a mobile application and lessons are short let you use in your daily commute for example. It is very well though to keep you learning  the language across days: You get reminders, you can compare to your friends, using it everyday increase your earned points… And the app itself is so much well designed: its graphics are very nice and user interface is really well tested.

What’s interesting is that behind the scene, duolingo aims at using crowdsourcing mechanism to provide translations to customers. I  wrote about this mechanism in a previous blog post.

Don’t worry, I’m not restricting myself to these technological tools  to learn German, but I thought they were worth listing to emphasise how modern technologies can help us in what we would have consider a very difficult environment before. And you, do you have any other technological tip?

Auf Wiedersehen !

Future of movies

Let’s imagine what movies could look like in the next years. I’m not going to talk about 3D without glasses or mega-super-HD, but some other new ideas realistically accessible with today’s technology.

Dawn of the Dead
We often say actors will be replaced by digital characters. I can assure you that today doing so costs a lot of money and that it will take time before these costs will be lower than fees of a not so famous actor. They won’t replace real actors, they will replace dead ones!
We saw movies with non-humans main characters (think about Jar Jar Binks or Golum). But today, technology is developed enough to be able to create virtual main human characters who do not fall in the “uncanny valley“.
But what about real actors who cannot act anymore ? Or what about dead movie legends ?
That’s why we may see some new epic Star Wars episodes with actors from the original trilogy. As an example, we recently saw Arnold Schwarzenegger acting in “Terminator Salvation”. He was entirely digital.
It raises some issues, can I decide to use Marilyn Monroe as a main character ? Who owns her image today ? Is this really ethical ? Can we credit with the real name of the dead actor ?

I bet Marilyn will be back in theatres

Dynamic content (i.e. better product placement)
Pixar constantly raises the quality of its movies. Recently I could see in “Up” that some shots were internationalized: For example, In the French version, French words were written on a crate. So I assume Pixar re-rendered this movie for every location.
Of course, this is something that can only be done using computer imagery. And what if this content wasn’t static ? What if it could be adjusted to the audience or the time dynamically?
From an artistic point of view that’s great, imagine a newspaper showing the headlines from today’s events, it improve the immersion of the spectator.
But this kind of innovation is rarely driven by art. On the contrary, advertisers will be able to do some localized product placement or advertising.
I think two actual factors will lead soon to streamed and localized content into movies:

  • screens will soon be entirely connected to the internet and thus content delivered can easily be adjusted by broadcasters
  • 3D image rendering operations are now cheap for broadcasters (in term of computer power needed).
The best product placement I have in mind: "The Fifth element"


It’s you, in the movie.
Then we could go deeper and imagine customizing the movie: take two or three pictures of your head, fill in some morphological details and enjoy a movie where the main character is yourself.
This can easily be done with computer generated movies. But I think it’s also feasible to replace a face in a traditionnal movie with technologies involving advanced face detection, realistic face reconstruction and complex compositing to mix the two. Example (watch until the end please):

It’s not new, the customization of the content can already be seen in video games.
Cinema may blend with video games, the story may not be linear. You may choose at some point the next part of the script, choose to save someone’s life or to let him die for example. (Remember this awesome Tipex Youtube advertisement ?)
This is something I experimented with in 2003 using simply Adobe Flash (in this project), and this is something that starts to be seen online now (using Youtube annotations or more complex systems)

All these ideas lead us to think about the definition of the cinema. Is it still the artist’s vision if we can change elements from the movie ?

Note: This article was drafted in November 2010, I found today that Georges Lucas announced in December 2010 to be planning to use dead actors in a movie. I guess that’s why I really need to use Beansight.

UPDATE 2011-01-24: Techcrunch spotted a German company doing custom product placement in video footage: Impossible Software – Is This What The Future Of Video Advertising Looks Like?.