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Google's Translate app got me this delicious chicken (and the beer too)

Armed with only a simple app and a hunger for fried chicken, technology reigned supreme when it came to ordering Taiwanese cuisine at Computex 2016.

google-translate-chicken.jpg
Nic Healey/CNET

One of my favourite moments of Computex 2016 here in Taiwan actually occurred off the show floor. Having just finished up on the Birdly VR (hands down the best virtual reality experience I've tried), my colleague Seamus Byrne and I found ourselves hungry for a late lunch.

We were close to a place where we'd eaten previously, but with one slight hiccup: the first time we'd had fellow CNETer Aloysius Low with us to order in Mandarin. This time it was just us, and beyond "hello" and "thank you" neither Seamus nor I had the conversational skills to get that spicy fried chicken we were craving.

Now Taipei is a very accommodating city. Many outlets have English menus and staff who know enough English to guide you through. But sometimes the best stuff is in the places that live on the far side of the language barrier.

Luckily, we had the Google Translate app, which interprets written and spoken phrases from a host of languages. But its most impressive function is its augmented-reality style instant translation. Switch the app to camera mode, point it at a sign and it will translate the words in real time, showing it on your screen as if the sign was in English (or whichever language you're after). It'll even match the font and placement.

The top is the original sign, the bottom is one of Google Translate's first tries at rendering into English.

Screenshot by Nic Healey/CNET

It's far from perfect, especially with Chinese, as we discovered: translations change in the blink of an eye and, as the screenshot shows, they can be a little mystifying. We were careful to avoid the menu item dubbed "chicken butt", but we found the "boneless fried chicken (large)" we were looking for. With patience, it's remarkable.

Hovering the phone carefully over menu items we were able to hunt down exactly what we wanted and by the simple expedient of pointing and nodding had two servings of delicious chicken on the way. We even accidentally located the beverage section and found our way to a couple of beers to combat the Taipei heat and humidity.

I'd known about Google Translate for a while, but more as a theory than something I'd ever need. Seamus and I using it successfully to feed ourselves -- well, that bordered on a tech epiphany for just how effective this free app can actually be.

See all of CNET's coverage of Computex 2016 here.