AR comes in many flavors. This is true of any technology in early stages as it twists around and takes shape. The most prevalent format so far is social lenses, as they enhance and adorn sharable media. Line-of-sight guidance in industrial settings is also proving valuable.

But a less-discussed AR modality is visual search. Led by Google Lens and Snap Scan, it lets users point their smartphone cameras (or future glasses) at real-world objects to identify them. It contextualizes them with informational overlays… or “captions for the real world.”

This flips the script for AR in that it identifies unknown items rather than displaying known ones. This makes potential use cases greater – transcending pre-ordained experiences that have relatively narrow utility. Visual search has the extent of the physical world as its canvas.

This is the topic of a recent report from our research arm, ARtillery Intelligence. Entitled Visual Search: AR’s Killer App?, it dives deep into the whatwhy, and who of visual search. And it’s the latest in our weekly excerpt series, with highlights below on visual search’s drivers & dynamics.

Primed and Motivated

After the last few installments of this series laid the groundwork for visual search and defined it (the “what”), it’s now time to examine and profile the competitive landscape (the “who”). The players include Google (Google Lens), Snap (Snap Scan) and Pinterest (Pinterest Lens).

Of all these players, Google is perhaps most primed for visual search. It’s also the most motivated. In other words, along with voice search, visual search is one way to future-proof its core search business given Gen-Z’s affinity for the camera and AR’s gradual cultural assimilation.

Google is also uniquely positioned to develop visual search, as it taps into the company’s knowledge graph and the data it’s assembled from being the world’s search engine for the past 20 years. This includes its vast image database for object recognition, including Street View.

Most of this takes form in Google Lens, as noted, which identifies items that you point your phone at. Just like web search, Lens will be free to use. And use cases will develop around general interest queries, as well as commercial searches. The latter is where monetization comes in.

For example, point your phone at a store or restaurant to get business details overlaid graphically – a use case Google has already started to roll out. Similarly, users can point their phones at a new jacket or pair of shoes they see on the street to discover reviews and purchase info.

This is all an extension of Google’s mission to “organize the world’s information.” But instead of a search index and typed queries, it utilizes machine learning and computer vision to process visual queries… captured intuitively by the camera. This also builds on Google’s AI prowess.

Can Google Merge AR and AI?

The Last Inch

Google’s goal here is to expand the surface area for search. In other words, visual stimulus will boost the quantity of searches that people conduct daily. In addition to typed queries, they can use visual inputs all around them. And Lens is well on its way with 10 billion monthly searches.

As background, Google has a longstanding goal to boost query volume and search performance since the smartphone’s introduction. The device’s app-heavy use case and declining cost-per-click from browser-based mobile searches are negative forces Google wants to counterbalance.

One way to do that is through voice and visual inputs. In addition to boosting query volume, visual search brings qualitative benefits. Because it inherently happens when users are in view of a given item, that proximity can bring Google to the last mile of the consumer journey.

This all ties back to user intent. Google has demonstrated that mobile local searches carry greater user intent and, therefore, value (in cost-per-click terms). When users search for things nearby, there’s a greater probability that they are closer – in distance and time – to a transaction.

With visual search, items being queried aren’t just in proximity… they’re in view. This concept has Google salivating over inferred consumer intent and, thus, the monetizable nature of those searches. So it’s not the last mile of the consumer journey… it’s more like the last inch.

We’ll pause there and circle back in the next installment to examine how Google is beginning to tackle these opportunities… and other players looking to do similar… 

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