Seeing the World Through Google Goggles

Earlier this fall Google upgraded their Google Mobile App for the iPhone to include Google Goggles (try saying that ten times fast), a feature that was previously only available to Android users. In a nutshell, Google Goggles allows you to perform Google searches using images taken with your iPhone’s camera. Once you’ve installed the free Google Mobile App, Goggling (I’m not sure if that’s the official term) is as simple as tapping the camera icon to the right of the search bar and snapping a photo of the item in question.

Before you go too camera happy, it’s important to note that only certain types of items are likely to work with Google Goggles. The software is designed to recognize covers of books, DVDs and CDs as well as barcodes and logos. Goggles will also recognize some buildings and landmarks and will do it’s best to pull text from photos and to identify objects.

There’s no denying that Google Goggles looks impressive in a demo, but how well does it work in the real world? I put Google Goggles to the test, with some help from friends in Ottawa, London and Melbourne. The question du jour: is Goggles truly useful or a novelty that soon grows old?

Judging a Book By Its Cover

I first put Google Goggles through its paces by scanning both book covers and barcodes of numerous books from a variety of sources. This included books from my own collection and a random assortment of books at a local bookstore, among them some rather esoteric titles from small publishers. I’m happy to report that Google Goggles correctly identified books every time, whether I took a photo of the barcode or the cover, and results came back within seconds on my iPhone 4.

The initial search result presented me a choice of accessing information specific to the book or performing a search based on text or images found on the book’s cover. Since the app correctly identified the books without fail, I didn’t have much use for the second and third options. Tapping the blue “Book” option brings up a basic summary of the book, including the author, publisher, date published and ISBN number, along with the title and book cover. The results page also includes two buttons: “Product Search” and “Book Search” in addition to web search results.

Google Goggles Book Search

Google Goggles identified books covers flawlessly.

Tapping the “Product Search” button leads to a list of merchants for price comparison. A “set location” link allows you to specify your current location – though having to do this on a mobile app feels foreign. Even after specifying my location as Vancouver, the results that came back were all from American resellers. As such, the price comparison feature is not very useful here in Canada, but is no doubt handy in the USA.

The “Book Search” button leads to the Google Books website, which contains a wealth of information about the book, and sometimes includes reviews and even sample pages from the book. Unfortunately Google Books isn’t optimized for mobile devices just yet, so getting to the information wasn’t as convenient as it could have been. Instead I found that I more often chose from the list of web results as a source of additional information and reviews. is optimized for mobile browsing and I generally find the user-submitted reviews to be useful.

Google Googles also proved very reliable when scanning covers and barcodes of both DVDs and CDs. In all but one case Goggles correctly identified the media correctly. As was the case with books, the search results included a summary of the product, price comparisons and web search results.

Labels, Logos and Text

Encouraged by my success with books, CDs and DVDs, I started snapping photos of logos, labels and text. The results were decidedly mixed.

I enjoy a good glass of wine, but am far from an expert and when purchasing a bottle of vino tend to stick with the limited selection of wines that I’m familiar with. Armed with Google Goggles I sought to expand my horizons. On a visit to the liquor store I snapped photos of labels of wines that looked promising and did find some matches, complete with reviews. But there were some cases where Goggles was only able to extract some text or a logo from the wine bottle, which often led to searching Google the “old fashioned way” – typing text into a search box.

In most cases Goggles was able to correctly identify logos for well established brands. In these cases, the search results page simply contains the logo, company name and a list of search results. The associated brand’s website predictably shows up as the first result on the list. I could see this feature being handy in some instances. For example, some logos don’t include the name of the product or organization they represent. Assuming you’re not already familiar with the logo, it would be difficult to search any other way.

Google Goggles Labels, Logos and Text

Google Goggles proved useful when searching for labels, logos and text.

I also tried scanning text from various sources. The text from signs, especially those with relatively simple designs, was often identified correctly. So, if you’re thinking of eating at a restaurant, you could take a photo of the sign as the basis for a Google Search. In reality, I’d most likely opt to use a more specialized app such as Urbanspoon or Yelp in these instances. I also tried scanning a variety of business cards. In some cases Goggles was able to identify the most relevant data on the card and produce useful search results. In other cases the words that were extracted were seemingly random and the search results were of little use.

Landmarks, Buildings and Images

One of Google Goggles’ signature features is the ability to identify certain landmarks and buildings. This feature worked quite well in my experience. I took a picture of a photo that I once took of the Taj Mahal and Goggles correctly identified this famous marble mausoleum and offered search results that included the Taj Mahal’s Wikipedia page. A photo of Canada Place, one of the most recognized landmarks here in Vancouver, was also correctly identified, though I did have to take shots from a few different angles before getting the anticipated result.

Google Goggles Identified Taj Mahal

Obtaining information on famous buildings and landmarks using Google Goggles also proved useful.

Goggles will always make an attempt to produce some meaningful results. In cases where it doesn’t find a close match, I found that the “similar images” that it offers are completely unrelated to the subject that I photographed. For example, I took a photo of my Samsung laser printer and the “similar” images included a photo of a dog posing beside a surf board, among others. Cute, but not particularly relevant. To help improve results, Google recommends avoiding glare from the flash and getting as close to your subject as possible. Though I found that many images couldn’t be identified, even in optimum lighting conditions.

Monetizing Google Goggles

Just recently Google started looking at the possibility of using Goggles as an advertising tool, with Google Goggle-enabled ads from Buick, Delta, Diageo, Disney and T-Mobile being included in the initial trials. The way it works is simple. Just take a photo of the Google Goggle-enabled ad, which you may find in the form of an ad in a magazine or a poster, and Google provides additional information on whatever is being advertised. For example, clicking on a Google Goggle-enabled movie poster might allow you to instantly view a trailer of the movie being promoted. Look for ads with the Google Goggle’s logo.

It will be interesting to see what comes from this experiment. It’s a clever idea which could be useful beyond the world of advertising. For example, I could see the same concept being applied in an educational setting. Or perhaps a traveller could take a snapshot of a plaque for a famous landmark and be taken to relevant information in their own language.

An International Perspective

I recently introduced some friends to Google Goggles and asked them to send me feedback on their experiences.

Kieran in Ottawa, Canada found it worked well for identifying logos, paintings and drawings and was pleasantly surprised when Goggles correctly identified the “The Shakespeare Pub” as an English pub sign. In his experience, the app fell short when identifying more generic images.

Phil put Goggles through its paces in Jolly Old England and successfully used Goggles to identify a beautiful building he often passed on the train. He’s confident that it’s a tool he’ll continue to use.

Al put Goggles to the test in Melbourne, Australia. He was impressed that Goggles was able to correctly identify some celebrity photos, logos and even a Peugeot 3008 with no associated text. He found this feature fun to play with, but is most likely going to continue to use Google Mobile App’s Voice Search feature for most of his mobile searches.

What’s Missing?

There’s a lot to like about Google Goggles and there is still plenty of room to grow. While Goggles is very effective at identifying certain types of images, such as book covers and logos, it tends to fall flat when it comes to more generic images. The “similar images” that pop up as a last ditch effort to produce a meaningful search are generally useless in my experience. I imagine the accuracy will improve over time as Google tweaks their image recognition algorithms and increases the depth of information in their databases.

I couldn’t find an easy way to share search results. For example, it would be convenient to be able to e-mail a search result for further review. Fortunately the Google Mobile App does keep a history of past searches in reverse chronological order. This feature, which is easy to miss, is accessed by clicking on the clock icon that appears when you’re taking a photo.

Occasionally searches came back with a network error, even when I was connected to a fast and reliable Wi-Fi connection. In most cases, the issue was resolved with a single tap on the “Try Again” button.

Google Goggles Issues

I encountered a few quirks along the way. And similar images were not always so similar.

A Peek at the Future

Google acknowledges that it’s still early days for visual search technology. Though, Goggles does offer a tangible look at what’s coming in the not too distant future. I look forward to the day when I can going out for a hike and aim my iPhone at a leaf to learn more about the tree it’s attached to or identify a bird that’s perched nearby. Visual search technology could also be a very useful tool when travelling, especially in cases where you don’t speak the language. For example, I can see taking a photo of a sign written in Japanese and instantly having a translation pop up on the screen. The possibilities are endless.

The Verdict

Will I continue to use Google Goggles for my day-to-day Googling? Absolutely. It won’t replace typing into the search box by any means, but is very useful in certain situations. I’ll definitely use it to quickly access reviews for things like books and DVDs and will likely put it to good use the next time I visit an art gallery. I’m also looking forward to using it during my travels. I often see landmarks and buildings that I admire but know nothing about. Searching any other way may not be practical – in the absence of any textual data it wouldn’t be obvious what term to search for. Being able to snap a photo and get information almost instantly is genuinely useful.

Are you currently using Google Goggles? If so, what has your experience been like so far? Is a tool that you use frequently or one that you pull out on rare occasions? If you haven’t given this technology a whirl, I encourage you to try it out and report back with your impressions. Happy Goggling!


Google Googles, a feature recently added to the Google Mobile App, allows you to perform searches using your iPhone's camera.