Modern technologies can provide you with almost any kind of relevant information in just a blink of an eye—searching information on a PC at a desk has already became an essential part of our life, but with the rapid development of mobile technologies, tech giants are now offering us more opportunities as we can learn about things on-the-go by entering not text, but images to get information.
This overview is inspired by the theme of the TrendWatching’s February report titled ‘Point-Know-Buy’ and explores the new trend, which is predicted to blossom this year—the rise of technologies which enable users to scan just about everything that can be scanned and receive a description of the item right away.
So far, there’re a bunch of applications of this kind on a consumer’s plate, but the tech giants and start-ups promise literally to ‘scan the world’ in the coming months, they are realizing the dream we all had in a childhood—to point at something with your finger (now the finger is replaced by a smartphone) and immediately get an answer on a range of simple questions such as “What is it? From where is it? Where can it find it? Where to go?”, etc. The new applications are also telling you what’s in the product, where to buy the item, how to use it, how to recycle its packaging and more.
Now, as the approach is still developing, the point-know solutions are implemented primarily via apps, but in fact people want to ‘recognize’ all (if this ever possible) objects and people without downloading dedicated apps (some of them are even not free), so these technologies should be integrated. The other point is that now recognition is possible only if the objects are well-lit and the photo is taken at the right angle—but ideally, they should work in much worse conditions, that’s what public really expects. On the current stage, the service is realized with four technologies behind the ‘point-know’ approach:
1. QR Codes. They are quite widespread now, especially in advertising, but in the nearest future newer and more ‘compact’ technologies are likely to replace the strangely looking codes.
2. Augmented Reality (AR). It is adding more elements to the real world and are also ubiquitous. The source writes that “to date, most AR apps (such as Wikitude) have relied on a phone’s GPS and compass sensors to ‘guess’ what a user is looking at, but newer and more powerful visual search AR technologies are beginning to appear.”
3. Tagging. People usually put mental tags on just everything they see, and this approach is in some way realized by new point-know technologies. They recognize and put a tag on a range of visual and audio items by ‘grasping’ invisible markers.
4. Visual search. That’s what rules in the ‘point-know’ world in the future, as this will allow image recognition, which will be used for delivering more content to the consumer. “So pointing one’s camera at an image of the Eiffel Tower will have the same result as pointing it at the real thing,” says the source.
Today, there are so many point-know applications, which allow to deliver more relevant content to consumers, that it’s nearly impossible to list all of them, so we’ll feature only the most interesting ones, which have a potential to inspire new developments or be upgraded in the coming months. We can divide these apps by ‘purpose,’ the ultimate reason of why consumers use them. So, here are two major types of these applications.
Consumers want to know basic information about things around them by just pointing their smartphone at the object, so the very first question this service was expected to answer is ‘What is it?’ Now you can identify just everything starting from leaves on the trees, birds (by their calls) and stars in the sky (Leafsnap, WeBIRD and Starwalk) to signs in a foreign languages for putting them into a user’s native language (like the app for Chinese, which translated the information from English into Chinese at Schiphol & Charles De Gaulle Airports), and even human faces and songs (with Shazam you can identify a track by a short piece). Applications can also help play golf (Golfscape GPS Rangefinder), find your parked car in the area, know more about the houses on sale in the neighbourhood and many more. The Google Googles app, a product from Google, the king of the web, also allows users to get information about object using visual data, not text (it can also translate the recognized text, offer a user to call a number identified on a business card, give you the name of a masterpiece or a book, and so on).
A bunch of applications not only provide information of what it is, but also inform on what to do with the product or its packaging. For instance, last summer Nestlé released 123Recycle app, which can tell you how to utilize the used packaging (for this, consumers are asked to scan the barcode of the product). Heinz released a Blippar app, which provides recipes with Tomato Ketchup after pointing a smartphone at the iconic red bottle in the store or at home. It also can be useful in medical service and helps people to track their health state—with one of these apps, SkinSkan, a user can take a snapshot of his or her moles and then monitor them to see if they become larger over some time. If the mole becomes bigger, the app advises a user to visit a doctor. Aurasma allows to a user to get video tutorials and guides on what to do with the product.
Brands offer a plethora of interactive catalogues to enable their fans to click on the selected items and order them (for instance, in December 2011 Zappos released its iPad magazine to allow readers choose and order goods while reading content). But brands can offer more. The application unveiled by adidas in August 2011 allows consumers to scan a pair of old sneakers and then learn where to find the nearest stockists to purchase a new similar pair. The recently launched Amazon Flow has the same idea behind it—point and buy from the online retailer,— but according to the consumers’ comments on the iTunes page, the new app is not that great since it doesn’t identify products properly. ebay, another digital market platform, announced that it is going to make image recognition technology the key feature of it future mobile apps—the company will not be among the first to introduce this kind of app, but as long as it’s a huge trend, this is ok.
Sometimes, when technology fails, people help. There is a list of apps, which just send the photos to a community and its members help to either identify the item or even tell where a sender might buy it. This solution might be a real breakthrough in providing enhanced experience for visually impaired people—through VizWiz people can help blind people recognize what object the phone is pointing. In the WhereToGet.It community one can upload a photo with a fashion item seen on a celebrity and then ask public where you can find the same piece (it’s not an app, thought, it might be a source of inspiration for one).
It seems than in a matter of one year, a consumer will be able to discover important information about almost any product, the price comparisons, reviews, content, etc. by just pointing at it with a smartphone, and pay with these apps for their purchases (Starbucks has already entered this area in some way). This field is enormous and a scope of opportunities the ‘smartphone pointing’ can provide is yet to be discovered. Who knows, maybe in the future the technology will need not your finger to make a snap on a screen, but just a motion of your eyes or even a single thought. Wait, it will certainly come in a few decades.