What’s All the Fuss uss About?
Your phone’s camera can now search the web as well
What is it?
A clever new technology that integrates your phone’s camera with Google’s search engine. Your camera will recognise what’s being shown on the screen, then automatically search for information about it online. The results will appear in a box on screen. If it works as well as Google claims, it’ll be the best use of augmented reality yet.
What’s augmented reality?
It places a computer-generated image on top of what’s being shown on a phone’s screen, merging the real-world environment with a digital one. It was the technology behind the Pokémon Go game, which became hugely popular last summer. In it, players collect digital characters hiding in real locations. These type of games are all a bit gimmicky, unlike the benefits of Google Lens.
Can you give me some examples?
Yes. Point your camera at a flower, and it will tell you what species it is (‘Milk and Wine Lily’ in the image above right). Point it at a restaurant, and it will search for reviews and opening times. Eat out while on holiday abroad and it will translate foreign-language menus. If you’re at a zoo, Google Lens might identify not only the type of animal, but also the species, and show facts about it on screen. It can even log your phone into your Wi-fi by reading the ‘setting sticker’ on your router (see image below left).
How does it work?
By using what so many technologies now depend on: artificial intelligence. Google claims that its algorithms have learned how to recognise objects in a photo better than humans can. The company’s boss Sundar Pichai dipped into his Big Book of Jargon to call Lens “an inflection point with vision”. He then gushed: “The fact computers can understand images and videos has profound implications for our core mission”.
What is Google’s core mission?
Officially, it’s to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. Unofficially, it’s to make enough money to send Croesus mad with envy.
How will it make money?
Advertising. With Google, it always comes back to advertising. In an interview with Campaign website, Ray Dollete, a director at marketing firm Phenomenon, revealed the kind of personal data companies could get from Google Lens: “The simple act of taking a photo of a boarding pass could tell you a lot about a person: their travel plans, lifestyle, airline preference, seating preference”. This would be priceless for companies wanting to target their adverts to individuals.
Hasn’t Google released similar things before?
Yes – you may be thinking of Word Lens, which is part of the Google Translate app. It can translate words in photos in 37 languages. Or perhaps you mean the dreadfully named Google Goggles, which recognises landmarks, paintings and barcodes to give you more information about them. It seems that both will be superseded by Google Lens.
When will it be available?
Not sure yet, but we’d be surprised if it doesn’t arrive by the end of the year. What we do know is that it will appear first as part of Google Photos, now used by 500 million people, and Google Assistant, which lets you perform tasks – such as sending messages and searching the web – by speaking into your phone. Soon we could all be looking at the world through a different Lens.