First Look: Google Goggles tries to ID your world

Google's latest lab experiment lets you send it photos for identification.

On Monday, Google announced, along with its new real-time search feature, a photo-based search it is calling Google Goggles (which is hard to say without -- sorry -- giggling). Goggles lets you send photos of a business card, book cover or even bar code from your Android-based smartphone to Google for quick identification and data manipulation.

What does it do? Once installed, the process is pretty simple: You snap a photo by centering your image in the Goggles screen and pressing a small camera icon at the bottom of the screen. Goggles then scans the image, analyzes it and identifies it. If the image is of a business card, Goggles separates the information into fields and lets you put it into your Google Contacts database. If it's a book, the app offers to let you purchase or research it. If it's a store or a landmark, Goggles fetches Google search info about the location. (Objects such as cars, animals or people aren't, according to the instructions, really identifiable yet.)

What's cool about it? Well, let's face it -- pointing your smartphone at anything, clicking a button and having all the information about that object immediate appear is extremely cool.

How well does It work? As soon as my partner and I heard about Goggles, we immediately grabbed our Droids, installed the app and started clicking away at business cards, books and barcodes. Results were mixed, depending on what we were aiming at.

Goggles did pretty well on books, identifying most, but not all, of the covers we tested it with. For example, Goggles had no trouble with books such as an old copy of R.A. Lafferty's Past Master, or a new book like John Joseph Adams' The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but there were also several it couldn't handle. When Goggles did recognize a book, it offered links to price comparisons and previews of the book at Google Book Search; it also showed Web search results.

Results were more mixed when we tried it on business cards. While it did well on one or two extremely simple cards, for the most part, Goggles wasn't terribly efficient. It recognized some of the data as phone numbers and e-mail addresses, but on the whole, did a far worse job than most current business-card scanners I've tried.

Google Goggles
Google Goggles captures and identifies images.

Trying to identify a storefront was an interesting exercise. While I focused on a local florist's shop, the names of several nearby restaurants drifted back and forth on tiny tags along the bottom of the screen -- no doubt picked up by Google Latitude and/or Maps. If I clicked on one of the tags, I was brought to a series of Web entries for that restaurant. But when I took a photo of stores that were not suggested by the tags, Goggles was not able to identify any of them -- although it tried. The florist's shop, for example, brought up some search entries for an obscure medical condition.

What needs to be fixed? Right now, Goggles is very much a beta, and even sticking to those types of queries that Google suggests, the results are distinctly mixed. As a result, it's currently more a game or an experimental toy than a practical app. But that will change. And, for now at least, it works only on Android phones.

Final verdict: Google Goggles is simultaneously intriguing and just a bit scary. The range of items you can ID is still very limited, and its accuracy level is still very tentative, but both of those are bound to be corrected as soon as the folks at Google Labs continue to tweak this. So what's scary? The day when you can quickly point your smartphone at a person in the street and know within seconds that person's name and particulars may not be all that far off.

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