Japan Goggles translates kanji from images

I'm sure many of you know well the frustration of trying to decipher labels, signs, and the occasional menu in Japan. Even if you come to Japan knowing a good number of kanji, unless you know all of them, you may still occasionally run up against characters you've not seen before and wonder how to read with the rest of the kanji you do know.

Nowadays, smartphone apps seem to be the common tools of choice for "surviving" as an expat in a foreign country - and there are so many useful ones for various tasks. I previously wrote about 8 survival tools for living in Japan, including a few of my favorite iPhone apps (ShinKanji, Katsuyo, Kotoba, etc.), and I've also written about the Google Translate app, available for iPhone and Android.

In this post I introduce an iPhone/iPod Touch app to include in the "survival tools for living in Japan" - Japan Goggles. I think it has a lot of potential for anyone who can't read Japanese fluently, and possibly for regular use when out and about (when reading comprehension often is even more critical).

Fortunately we can gather a lot of information on the internet, made easier with online translation tools and dictionaries, but if you're at the store and trying to read something, you either have to stand there and scribble individual kanji in Shinkanji (one of my favorite kanji apps), or if you know some of the kanji, try entering them in a dictionary app and hope the word you're looking for pops up. (Although, I suppose you could always take a picture and send it to someone who reads Japanese... though realistically we can't do that every time we need help! Then again, startup mygengo might be worth looking at...)

Like other newer apps, such as Word Lens, Japan Goggles steps in to fill the gap. You can find Japan Goggles in the iTunes store for $4.99. It translates Japanese words to English via your live camera or a still photo (taken either within Japan Goggles or via the regular camera app). An internet connection is not needed. The app analyzes the kanji and reveals what it thinks are the best matches. Is it worth the $4.99? Read on for my review.

Main Features:

Use Japan Goggles to analyze Japanese text via either your camera live, take a still picture in the app itself, or use a picture you've already snapped from your photo album. You can adjust the "crop" position of the box and zoom and/or move the image around in the frame.

Live camera translation

The following two pictures show me trying to analyze some text via the live camera. (And yes, it's difficult to take a screenshot while simultaneously holding the phone steady on the text). The live camera refreshes the translation regularly, which you can change in the settings. (Such as .2 seconds, a second, etc.) You can see in the following examples, the translation worked pretty well, although I needed to make the crop box smaller in the left image so the dots won't show up. (When I did, it gave me the right word).

Still photo translation

You can translate with a still photo either taken with your phone's camera app or within Japan Goggles itself. Then adjust the crop box, which *should* refresh every time you move the crop box or image around (unless you have the refresh rate set to "none").

The app caught the correct kanji for the first photo, however, no matter how many times I adjusted the photo, crop box, and refreshed, the app didn't pull up the correct kanji in the second example.


Once the app pulls up the correct kanji (in either the live camera mode or still photo mode), select "Analyze", where you'll be brought to the screen shown in the image below. More options typically appear for longer strings of characters. Press any of the kanji or kanji combinations to see a reading and translation in the bottom part of the screen.

As shown in the screenshots, you can also change the settings, export the kanji (copy to the clipboard) and of course, return to the main menu.

Pros and Cons

To preface this, the app does state specifically in all of its instructions what works and what doesn't and how to use the app to achieve the best results.

What's great about it

The fact that you can use your smartphone camera to "read" kanji is huge for anyone who can't read kanji very well, or can't read it at all, and certainly what makes this app worth mentioning in the first place. Even if you know a decent amount of kanji, but haven't yet passed the JLPT N1, this app may come in handy to quickly analyze a character without needing to enter it in ShinKanji, or a similar app/device.

This app, and others of its kind, really do have great potential and I'm sure will improve even more with time.

What's not so great

- The app instructions say to only crop one line of text at a time. This is true, and even with that, I often found an entire line was often too much and needed to crop it down to just a word or two, or even a character or two at most. Any more than this resulted in more confusion for the app, and longer time waiting for it to calculate properly.

- In my use, the live camera option isn't steady enough. The screen shakes all over, even if I'm sitting perfectly still, and it was frustrating trying to hold it while capturing the text and waiting for the app to refresh the kanji so I could press "Analyze" for the correct characters. I also found it difficult to press Analyze while trying to hold the phone steady when the correct kanji finally appeared, meaning I sometimes lost the correct translation and had to wait again. The still camera is easier for this.

- Sometimes the still camera wouldn't recognize translations as well as the live camera, though I'm not sure why. Occasionally the app also wouldn't refresh in this mode, even with the option on and constantly adjusting the crop box.

What this app can't do:

These are also general cons, and I can't fault Japan Goggles for them as the instructions are quite clear on what does and doesn't work. Just so you know though:

- For obvious reasons, calligraphic type won't work in this app, so you're limited to regular text. This can of course, limit the app's usage in "real-world" situations where you often run into various fonts of Japanese text. It would be fantastic I think if an app or device was able to accurately read calligraphic text (though I'm guessing that's a long ways off...)

- If the text you're trying to translate is in a box or has lines or shapes around it, the app often won't register the proper characters (this is probably somewhat obvious). You can adjust the crop, but I find with some words it can take a bit too much time and become slightly frustrating to get it cropped "just right" to read the text, and even then it wouldn't always pull up the correct characters.

- The instructions also indicate that the app needs high contrast to translate, such as black text on a white background, and I found this to be very true. Black on white works best, or black on some light background. If there isn't enough contrast, the app can't read the characters. This is certainly understandable. However, I had trouble even with white on a darker background, as below (the crop box was actually higher but trying to take a screenshot resulted in this - but the kanji translation remained the same):

No matter how many times I adjusted the crop box, it couldn't recognize the characters for this image.

Conclusion: Is Japan Goggles worth downloading?

This probably depends on what you use it for. I think it was worth the $4.99 I spent, even with its limitations (and to their credit, the developers don't hide the fact that it has limitations). I don't use Japan Goggles very often, but I find it most helpful when looking up certain kanji on papers or pamphlets I have at home (as they are usually high contrast). I've tried using it while out and about but that tends to only work best if I can take a clear still photo and then analyze it afterward, as holding the phone up, trying to keep it steady and trying to analyze the correct kanji all at the same time is a bit difficult. Taking a picture sometimes works, but then it doesn't always refresh the translations.

All that said, I do think the app has a lot of potential, and I'm excited to see what the developers do with it in the future. Developer website here.

Have any of you tried out Japan Goggles? What do you think?

This was not a paid or requested review. All opinions are my own and influenced by my own experience using the app. I purchased Japan Goggles at my own expense several months ago.

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