Lens is Google’s experimental, camera-powered search engine, but up until today, the service was buried inside Google’s Assistant and the Google Photos app. Lens still isn’t getting its own standalone app, but now Google is merging the feature into the default camera apps on a handful of Android devices, including the Pixel. With new prominence, Google is updating Lens with a handful of features that should land on your phone sometime “over the next few weeks”.
Perhaps the most immediately useful feature will be “smart text selection”, which Google says will let you copy and paste any text you see in the real world. This feature wouldn’t seem all the helpful in a pinch were it not for another change coming to Lens: It will work in real-time, so you won’t have to snap a picture in order for Lens to interpret whatever you’re pointing your camera at.
When you point Lens at text, it will also try to understand what that text means, and Google offered the following example of why that might be nice.
Say you’re at a restaurant and see the name of a dish you don’t recognise – Lens will show you a picture to give you a better idea. This requires not just recognising shapes of letters, but also the meaning and context behind the words. This is where all our years of language understanding in Search help.
Google also announced “style match”, a seemingly pretty limited discovery feature that recommends similar products when you point your camera at clothes or a “home decor item”.
Google says Lens will land inside the default camera apps on “supported devices from LG, Motorola, Xiaomi, Sony Mobile, HMD/Nokia, Transsion, TCL, OnePlus, BQ, Asus, and of course the Google Pixel”.
Wistfully, Google describes real-time Lens as something that will enable users to “to browse the world around you, just by pointing your camera”, but until we get a chance to try out the updates, there’s good reason to remain sceptical of Lens’ short-term potential. Google has been trying to make this a thing for a long time, and the company still has a good bit of work to do before Lens is anywhere near as useful or precise as its namesake search engine.