Once upon a time, we used to think the future of technology would look a certain way – like the flying cars and self-drying jackets of Back to the Future Part 2.
Now don't get me wrong, we're all for cars that run on old banana peels (and the environment would probably thank us too!) but there are already a ton of brilliant innovations out there that are a whole lot better than we could have expected.
One brand, in particular, goes above and beyond to provide a ton of cool tricks and tools to make everyday life a bit easier – and we're talking about Google, of course.
Yeah, we've had a bit of a rant about the awesomeness of Pixel devices before now, but this time we thought we'd focus on one of our favourites: Google Lens.
What exactly is Google Lens?
Well, if you've got a Pixel device, it's a clever little bit of software that once you've discovered, you'll wonder how you ever lived without. But since it's from Google, you can also enjoy Google Lens on other devices too, both Android and Apple (more on that later.)
To explain it simply, Google Lens lets you search for what you see. So instead of having a search engine and the internet in your brain (wow, that would be both brilliant and invasive, right?) you just point your camera at something and use Google Lens to search for it.
It gathers images that are visually similar or related to the image you've searched, and helps you with all sorts of problems, on the spot.
Okay, that sounds simple enough. What can it do?
Plenty, actually – it's a smart point-and-shoot tool that you can't go wrong with, and you can use it for all sorts.
Let's imagine you're in your favourite coffee shop, and you notice that the chair in the corner is exactly what you've been looking for to finish off your bedroom at home. There's no label on it, and there aren't any staff around to ask, so you open Google Lens, point the camera at the chair, and snap a quick pic.
Google Lens will then scour the internet and considerable resources to find items that look similar – and often the exact item you're looking for. So you can choose to pay out of the nose for the fancy boutique accent chair (it's a very fancy coffee shop, after all) or you can buy the more affordably priced one and enjoy how it looks with the rest of your home décor.
Too niche? How about when you spot someone wearing something on the street, and you want to know where it's from? Snap a cheeky pic with Google Lens and find out. You'll have that brilliant new blazer on next-day delivery before you know it.
Heard of the Rosetta Stone? Google Lens does one better and is absolutely priceless when you're on holiday in a country where you don't speak the language.
Using the tool, you can take pictures of text or just hold your camera open with text in the viewfinder and translate it on the spot. No typing it in or even figuring out which language you're trying to translate – Google Lens does all that for you.
Even better, for people who are blind or have low vision, Google Lens will read the text out loud to you in your own language. Right now, it can recognise around 30 scripts (though it's most accurate and impressive with the Latin alphabet) and over 100 languages. So you'll never accidentally order intestines in a restaurant again!
Whether you're struggling with algebra or just suck at chemistry, Google Lens can make sense of the nonsense when you can't think where to start.
Firstly, it can help you take notes from other texts – just take a photo of the section of text you want to copy down, and Google Lens will copy it for you, so you can paste it into your notes without typing it all out.
For even more help, Google Lens can also help you study maths, history, chemistry, biology, physics and more. So next time you're stuck on an equation, point your camera at the problem, and Google Lens will help you find explainers, tutorials, videos, guides and other results that help get you back on track.
If you've ever spotted an interesting-looking plant while out and about or wondered what that tiny black and white bird in your garden was, then Google Lens can help there, too. You've probably figured it out by now, but all you have to do is point and shoot, and Google Lens will tell you what you're looking at.
However, if you're close up to a mysterious new animal and it has sharp teeth, we'd recommend turning tail and bolting before you bother to take a photo. That's just our opinion.
One cool trick up Google Lens' sleeve is the ability to help you figure out where you are (although Google Maps is also pretty adept at this, let's be honest.) Now, if you're staring up at the Eiffel Tower and snap a quick photo, Google Lens can tell you you're in Paris because it knows that's where the Eiffel Tower is. It can probably give you an even more specific location based on the angle and surrounding view.
But if you turn on location sharing with Google Lens and take a photo of the Eiffel Tower, you'll get a more specific result – because you might be standing under the Eiffel Tower's half-scale replica in Las Vegas, and that's quite a long way from Paris.
It's worth adding that the tool also works for less iconic landmarks – if you're really stuck, Google Lens is a smart way to help get your bearings by taking a picture of a nearby location.
One of our favourite aspects of Google Lens is the ability to customise what you're looking for, by combining an image search with a text search. For example, remember that blazer you spotted someone wearing? If you wanted to find something the same, but in a different colour, you could add "orange" to the search, and Google Lens would find matches for you.
Best of all, Multisearch lets you search information from local businesses on Google, too – so if someone posts an image of a truly phenomenal-looking cheeseburger on their Instagram, and your mouth starts to water at the very idea of it, you can find it! Take a screenshot, open it with Google Lens, and add "near me" to the search. You'll be tucking in in no time.
Impressive. But how does it work?
It's basically just genius-level searching and comparisons. But no joke, there's nothing basic about it. Powering Google Lens takes some seriously smart tech, and it's part of the reason Pixel devices are so darn good – they pack Google's Tensor chipsets, which are designed to optimise this sort of thing (among other stuff, of course.)
Breaking it down though, Google Lens compares the objects in your picture to other images from across the internet at a crazy kind of search speed. It then ranks the matching images based on how similar they are, as well as taking in handy signals from the image host – for example, if you're searching for a dress, it will look at the website the matching image is from and is more likely to confirm it's a match if it's a clothing site and not, say, a local otter sanctuary. So, common sense, but for AI.
It's not an infallible tool, to be fair – but neither are we, as human beings. If you snap a picture of a dog that is 90% Border Terrier and 10% Spaniel, the chances are that the dog is going to look more like a Border Terrier. Google Lens will probably identify the dog as such because it can only offer you visually similar results.
When it analyses your photo, it will generate plenty of possible matching results but will rank them according to how relevant it thinks they are to your search. If there's no sign of a Spaniel in the photo, Google can't offer you much more detail. However, you could add it in using Multisearch, if you already know what you're looking for.
There are other cases where Google Lens will provide you with lots of extra information, though – usually in cases where the tool is confident in its search results. One example would be if you took a photo of an item that included a barcode. This is a massive clue for the search to match its results against, so you're more likely to get not only matching images, but links to more information and website to go buy the item.
Can I use Google Lens without a Pixel device?
Of course. Google Lens is included in the Google Camera app of Pixel devices and works brilliantly when powered by the brand's chipsets.
However, it's also available in the Google app and the Google Photos app – which can be downloaded via Google Play for Android and the App Store for iOS. So, no one misses out.