As anyone who has ever studied Chinese knows, it’s an onerous language to learn–especially on an empty stomach. That’s where Waygo comes in. The translation iOS app makes life easier for travelers by using optical character recognition to read menu items written in Chinese characters. For a demonstration of how it works, watch Waygo’s video below:
There are other OCR apps out there, including Pleco Chinese Dictionary‘s OCR add-on and CamDictionary. Waygo CEO Ryan Rogowski, however, says his company is targeting a more focused market. His app “is a translator, rather than a dictionary. It looks at a string of characters and gives you a meaningful translation, rather than individual character definitions,” says Rogowski. In addition, Waygo takes up only 8MB on your device, ideal if you don’t feel like installing a full dictionary app.
I tested Waygo mostly on menus written with traditional Chinese, since that is the character set used in Taiwan where I live, though it also works with simplified Chinese characters. The app can capture characters via video or still photos. I found the latter easier to use, especially if my hands were shaky from hunger or the menu had been laminated (for best results, hold the camera six inches away and use the zoom).
There are a few shortcoming to Waygo’s current version. For example, it does not recognize stylized fonts, calligraphy or handwriting (unless it is very neat) or vertically-arranged characters. When the app did hone in on characters, however, Waygo was extremely helpful. For popular items, the Waygo Translator says what in each dish (for example, it explained that dandanmian are Sichuan-style noodles in chili sauce).
For other dishes, Waygo offered direct translations, as you can see in my screencaps. This was a bit confusing, such as when Waygo told me that the soup I’d ordered was flavored with something called eucommia, but one Google search later and I knew that I was chowing down on the bark of a small tree used in traditional Chinese medicine to strengthen joints. Yum!
I’d previously used the OCR add-on in my Pleco dictionary to look up Chinese words while on the go. I adore Pleco, but its OCR add-on starts at $11.99 and the app is meant for serious language study, while Waygo is fast, fun and free.
Rogowski was inspired to create a translator app while struggling to learn Chinese during a stint spent building mobile games in China. The Waygo team decided to focus on menus first because “we wanted to nail a certain realm of the Chinese langauge, and then expand to all subjects,” says Rogowski. “Ordering food in China as a foreigner is a huge problem, giving us a large market of users right away.”
Waygo’s team has been working on its OCR for several years and has built all of its technology in house. “We are able to control the quality more carefully and make improvements as we think of them,” says Rogowski. “We have also had our users’ help in making improvements on the algorithms by submitting wrong translations.”
The company was originally named Waigo, after the pinyin for “waiguo” (or foreign country in Chinese), but changed it to Waygo because people unfamiliar with Chinese were pronouncing it was “why-go.” In the near future, Waygo plans to make OCR translation apps for other languages including Korean and Japanese. A new version of Waygo’s Chinese menu translator app is already in the works and will launch in a few weeks with multiline translation, a new design and better translations that offer more general context.
Waygo is currently funded through 500 Startups and other private investors. The app is available as a free download though the App Store, but its developers plan to monetize it by offering in-app purchases soon. For example, a user can test out the app with a limited number of translations, then purchase packages for deeper access. Waygo also hopes to form partnerships with other companies interested in the app’s tech, including companies in the travel industry.