Google Goggles: Bad for Business?

Amidst the slew of Google announcements this week, one that really made me sit up in my chair concerned a new mobile service called Google Goggles. Now, I don't have an Android phone and therefore have no easy way to try out this "visual search" technology, but I know some people who have, and they have confirmed it works -- at least some of the time. While Google Goggles promises to bring convenience and coolness to owners of Android phones, I am convinced there will be a disruptive impact on certain types of businesses and organizations, especially as Google improves the recognition algorithms and ports the technology to other mobile platforms. This futuristic technology has really arrived, and IT and business managers will need to evaluate it as their customers, employees and competitors start to use it.

First, a quick explanation of what Google Goggles does. The visual search concept (which Google also calls "computer vision" and "search by sight") is simple: Use a mobile phone with a camera to identify objects and match them to search results or online databases, such as maps or e-commerce sites.

Practically speaking, this means you can take a picture of a book or a barcode, and be immediately taken to a list of search results, including its Amazon product page. Or, if you're visiting another city, viewing a distinctive landmark through your phone's screen can not only reveal its name but also its history, via links to Wikipedia or a local tourism website. The videos below demonstrate a few other examples, as well as other types of apps built on visual search -- including an augmented reality view of a local street and its merchants. In the not-so-distant future, I would expect to see special offers, guided tours, or virtual billboards triggered by bar codes or other objects in front of the lens.

Visual search dramatically lowers the bar to getting useful information quickly, using devices that many people already carry in their pockets and purses. It's not hard to imagine the impact on certain industries. Retailers, watch out -- comparison shopping just got a whole lot easier, at least for those items that Goggles can recognize (Google says Goggles is not so good with cars, clothing or food -- at least not yet). Visual search will also change tourism and business travel, as people use their phones to understand their environments and find places to eat and be entertained. People who use visual search won't need to rely on traditional sources of information, such as guide books and tour guides. Stores, products and restaurants with bad online reviews can be easily avoided, simply by looking through a mobile phone's camera.

How might visual search applications affect enterprise IT? The potential to let employees or partners navigate unfamiliar corporate campuses, customer sites, or training sessions with snapshots or barcodes are some obvious scenarios. Database applications based on SKUs or RFID may become less important in some shops, as it will be possible for a worker in a warehouse or factory floor to identify a part or product just by taking a picture of it. Visual search may lead to increased productivity, but it may also cause problems, if visual search results bring up negative or incorrect information.

The introduction of Google Goggles should serve as a wake-up call to many types of businesses. The augmented reality vision that Ray Kurzweil and other futurists have been talking about for years is really here. The technology is not widely used yet, but it will be. Now is the time to try out visual search, and evaluate some of the ways in which it might impact your own operations down the road.

Sources and research: Computerworld.com, TechCrunch.com, PaidContent.org, Google videos and blog post.

Ian's bio and disclosures are located here. Follow Ian on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ilamont. Industry Standard updates and asides are available at twitter.com/the_standard and in our newsletters. You can also join our Industry Standard Facebook page and LinkedIn group.

Subscribe to the Daily Downloads Newsletter

Comments