Google I/O, the company’s annual developers conference, opened yesterday with Google Lens, a serious piece of technology that suggests Augmented Reality (AR) might finally become, well, reality. Something that people actually use.
Until now AR has only ever been “promising” (remember Google Glass?), but with Lens, we might finally have a product with real-world applications. Something that can enhance customer experience across dozens of industries: retail, restaurants, entertainment, zoos, parks, transit, automotive, medical, etc. Any venue with a narrative to weave can communicate it more vividly using robust augmentation.
Unlike the painfully awkward (and occasionally illegal) Google Glass, Lens works from your phone's camera app and uses AI and machine learning to recognize what it sees. It can match the image with identifying information, or overlay on-the-spot reviews and running social media commentary.
Think of it as a search engine that works with pictures. Instead of a results page, Google provides data, analysis, and relevant links. Notice in the video how “Nearby Florists” appears in the bottom of the screen. Could that become a companion to AdWords? Maybe AdReality? AdLife? Whatever form it ends up taking, this is a Google product so smart money is on future monetization.
So far, this technology is limited to Google's own apps, and they haven't said if they plan on allowing third parties to piggyback on the innovation. We hope that will soon change. If it does, we already have some potential applications that are well within reach (with a little tweaking and customization).
1) Wayfinding: Imagine you’re lost in a mall, museum, drug store, parking lot, etc. You just hold up your phone and follow directions to your next destination.
2) Social product integration: If you’re in a store, you might view a jacket through your camera to see if any of your friends already have it, and, if so, how the piece is holding up. A savvy retailer might remind you of pants you bought there previously, and show you a picture of the two pieces in an outfit together.
3) Research: If you're a socially conscious consumer, you could investigate the jacket's supply chain, discover where the leather was sourced, and assure yourself it meets “cruelty-free” standards.
4) Location enhancement: With Google Lens, you can look at a restaurant to see how long the wait is, or flip through its reviews. And it's all done through your camera. We'd hoped that Google Glass might deliver on this, but consumers needed something more convenient and less, well...turns out people didn't want to look like Robocop as much as focus groups expected.
5) Play: Here the possibilities are almost endless. If you pair the base functionality of Google Lens with a product or locational database, any site can become a layered visual playground. Imagine data-driven Snapchat filters, but for retail environments or entertainment parks. Smartphones could become an interactive gateway to anything from factual and historical information to graphics and games, all themed to maximize customer experience and draw people back to the brick-and-mortar world.
Real-world businesses are right to see digital experience as a threat. Retail is particularly vulnerable, but anything that can be replaced with a virtual version soon will be. It's essential that we bring together the best of both realities, and the innovation is a small step in the right direction.