Application dishes up something in very good taste

Updated: 2013-02-08 04:46

By Eric Jou (China Daily)

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Ordering food in China is hard, as there are a myriad of choices, but an English menu is not often offered.

The task is just like playing Russian roulette — you never know what you'll get.

The fear of receiving some random mishmash of chop suey might soon be gone with the introduction of new optical character recognition technologies such as Waygo.

Created by Translate Abroad Inc, Waygo is a free application for the Apple iPhone that uses OCR to translate Chinese menu items to English. Ryan Rogowski, co-founder and CEO of Translate Abroad, says that the idea for Waygo came during a stint in China.

"It goes back to when I lived in Beijing. This was where the idea hit home; learning Chinese was so hard," Rogowski said. "If you don't know how to write a character, it's pretty impossible to look it up."

Rogowski was studying in Beijing learning language and electrical engineering under a scholarship from the United States, and started playing with technology for optical character recognition.

OCR software takes image scans of text for digital input.

Popular OCR apps include digital scanners for mobile phones, translation tools such as Waygo and Youdao Translator.

Rogowski said that while Waygo is only translating menus at the moment, he aims to add signage and transport translations.

But food is the priority.

"When I went into a restaurant with my broken Chinese and asked for a recommendation I would always get kungpao chicken, so I literally ate kungpao chicken and one other rice meal for about a month," Rogowski said. "Part of it was that I couldn't read the menu and part of it was I was afraid of ordering something that can cause diarrhea."

Food was also the reason that US native Mollie Dollinger discovered Waygo.

Dollinger, an education consultant in Chongqing, heard about Waygo from a friend.

Dollinger said the app helped her out once during a banquet with clients. The clients asked Dollinger for suggestions, but unfortunately for her the menu didn't have pictures, Dollinger said.

Instead of fretting, she said she whipped out her iPhone and scanned the menu with Waygo, getting a translation and impressing her clients.

While Waygo is currently only Chinese-to-English menu translation, Rogowski and his team are working on additional translation tools and languages.

On the flipside, China's Youdao translation company has also released an OCR translation application. Youdao Translator works similarly to Waygo, but translates pretty much everything from English to Chinese.

Youdao supports instant Chinese to English translation via OCR.

Song Jun, a trader, says that he learned about Youdao at the Apple app store. Song said that he first really used the app while on vacation in the US. The convenience of the app was a surprise, he said. Funny enough, he said the main purpose that he uses Youdao for is for food translation.

"Just recently I was in America, and I was able to use the app to translate a lot of the words that I didn't understand," Song said.

"I used the app for menu translations. There were so many steaks and different cuts of meat and lots of different names of desserts. I couldn't read a lot of it so I used the app and it translated everything for me."

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