In his inspired Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the late, great science fiction writer Douglas Adams speaks of a yellow, parasite-like Babel fish, a small creature which, when inserted in the ear of an inter-galactic traveller, allows the listener to comprehend the language of any being in the universe.
Not quite as powerful, but promising just the same, is the Word Lens, a new iPhone app that instantly translates words viewed through the phone's camera from Spanish into English, and vice versa.
This new service offers the intriguing prospect of similar services in other languages, including Arabic. However, technology such as this is not easy to perfect, as anyone who has ever used online translation tools will testify. And, considering the poor quality of many English signs around the UAE, a same-language correction app is perhaps in order as well. It would clarify, for example, that "Horses reduce speed" is not a sign directed at literate equines.
Tom the Talking Cat and Paper Toss might have been among some of the year's most downloaded iPhone apps, but when it comes to mobile services that actually improve our lives rather than just waste them away, Word Lens may have just raised the bar. Adams, who loved, but also appreciated the absurdity of science fiction, would no doubt have preferred it to the far messier Babel fish.