The new wave of visual search: what it can do, and what might be possible

The new wave of visual search: what it can do, and what might be possible

October 13, 2016 2:01 pm

Visual search on the internet has been round for a while.

In 2008, TinEye turned the primary picture search engine to make use of picture identification know-how, and in 2010, the Google Goggles app allowed customers to look the bodily world with their telephone cameras.

But within the final couple of years, visible search has come into new prominence, with corporations like Pinterest and Bing creating into critical contenders within the visible search area, and search engines like Splash conceptualising new methods to look the online visually.

We now have a powerful vary of visible search strategies out there to us: we will search with photographs, with a part of a picture, with our cameras, with paint on a digital canvas. And mixed with purposes in ecommerce, and up to date advances in augmented actuality, visible search is a strong software with big potential.

So what can it do presently, and the place may it develop sooner or later?

Then and now: The evolution of visible search

Although the know-how behind picture search has come on in leaps and bounds up to now few years, it’s because of developments which have taken place over a for much longer time interval.

Image search on the internet was round even earlier than the launch of reverse picture search engine TinEye in 2008. But TinEye claims that it was the primary such search engine to make use of picture identification know-how slightly than key phrases, watermarks or metadata. In 2011, Google launched its personal model of the know-how, which allowed customers to carry out reverse picture searches on Google.

Both reverse picture searches have been capable of determine well-known landmarks, discover different variations of the identical picture elsewhere on the internet, and find ‘visually comparable’ pictures with comparable composition of shapes and color. Neither used facial recognition know-how, and TinEye was (and nonetheless is) unable to recognise outlines of objects.

google image search

Google reverse picture search in 2011. Source: Search Engine Land

Meanwhile, Google Goggles allowed customers of Android smartphones (and later in 2010, iPhones and iPads) to determine labels and landmarks within the bodily world, in addition to figuring out product labels and barcodes that may permit customers to look on-line for comparable merchandise. This was in all probability the primary iteration of what appears to be a pure marriage between visible search and ecommerce, one thing I’ll discover a bit extra afterward.

The Google Goggles app continues to be round on Android, though the know-how hasn’t superior all that a lot in the previous few years (tellingly, it was eliminated as a function from Google Mobile for iOS on account of being “of no clear use to too many individuals”), and it tends to pale compared to a extra trendy ‘object search’ app like CamFind.

goggles fail

You tried, Goggles.

CamFind is a visible search and picture recognition cellular app that was launched in 2013, and whereas it doesn’t seem to have the ability to remedy Sudoku puzzles for you, it does have a powerful fee of accuracy.

Back when Google Glass was nonetheless a factor, Image Searcher, the startup behind CamFind, developed a model of the app to deliver correct visible search to Google Glass, activated by the command “OK Glass, what do you see?” This is the type of futuristic software of visible search that many individuals imagined for a know-how like Google Glass, and will have had nice potential if Google Glass had caught on.


The CamFind cellular app has a powerful accuracy fee, even right down to figuring out the model of an object.

When the ‘pinboard’-type social community Pinterest launched in 2012, it was a little bit of a darkish horse, gaining big reputation with a demographic of younger-to-center-aged ladies however remaining obscure in most typical tech circles. Even those that recognised its potential as a social community in all probability wouldn’t have guessed that it will additionally form up right into a drive to be reckoned with in visible search.

But for Pinterest, correct visible search simply is sensible, because it permits Pinterest to serve related Pin suggestions to customers who is perhaps on the lookout for one thing visually comparable (say, the right copper lamp to mild their front room) or hone in on the precise a part of a Pinned picture that pursuits them.

In 2014, Pinterest acquired VisualGraph, a two-individual startup which was cofounded by certainly one of Google’s first pc imaginative and prescient engineers, bringing the corporate’s visible search know-how into the fold. In the identical yr, it launched and commenced refining a perform that allowed customers to spotlight a selected a part of a Pin and discover different Pins which are visually just like the highlighted space – two years forward of Bing, who solely launched that performance to its cellular picture search in July 2016.

Bing has pipped Pinterest to the submit by introducing visible looking with a smartphone digital camera to its native iOS app (I can’t touch upon how correct it’s, because the Bing iOS app is simply obtainable within the US), one thing that Pinterest continues to be engaged on launching. But it’s clear that the 2 corporations are on the vanguard of visible search know-how, and it’s value listening to each to see what developments they announce subsequent.


Meanwhile, Google is but to supply any advance on Google Goggles for extra correct looking within the bodily world, however you possibly can guess that Google isn’t going to let Pinterest and Bing keep forward of it for too lengthy. In July, Google introduced the acquisition of French startup Moodstocks, which specialises in machine studying-based mostly picture recognition know-how for smartphones.

And at Google I/A in May, Google’s Engineering Director Erik Kay revealed some fairly spectacular picture recognition capabilities for Google’s new messaging app, Allo.

“Allo even provides sensible replies when individuals ship photographs to you. This works as a result of along with understanding textual content, Allo builds on Google’s pc imaginative and prescient capabilities to know of the content material and the context of pictures. In this case, Allo understood that the image was of a canine, that it was a cute canine, and even the breed of the canine. In our inner testing, we discovered that Allo is ninety% correct in figuring out whether or not a canine deserves the ”cute canine” response.”

Visual search and ecommerce: A pure partnership

How many occasions have you ever been out and about and wished you can discover out the place that individual purchased their cool footwear, or their superior bag, with out the awkwardness of getting to strategy a stranger and ask?

What in the event you might simply use your telephone digital camera to secretly take a snap (although that’s nonetheless probably fairly awkward for those who get caught, let’s be trustworthy) and store for visually comparable search outcomes on-line?

Ecommerce is a pure software for visible search, one thing which just about all corporations behind visible search have realised, and made an integral a part of their providing. CamFind, for instance, will take you straight to purchasing outcomes for any object that you simply search, making a seamless hyperlink between seeing an merchandise and with the ability to purchase it (or one thing prefer it) on-line.


Pinterest’s advances in visible search additionally serve the ecommerce aspect of the platform, by serving to customers to isolate merchandise that they may be desirous about and easily browse comparable gadgets. An ‘object search’ perform for its cellular app would even be designed to assist individuals discover gadgets just like ones they like within the bodily world on Pinterest, with a view to purchasing them.

With the myriad prospects that visible search holds for ecommerce, it’s no shock that Amazon has additionally thrown its hat into the ring. In 2014, it built-in a purchasing-by-digital camera performance into its fundamental iOS app (and has since launched the perform on Android), and in addition launched Firefly, a visible recognition and search app for the Amazon Fire Phone.

Even after the Fire Phone flopped, Amazon refused to surrender on Firefly, and launched the app to the extra reasonably priced Kindle Fire HD. The visible search perform on its cellular app works greatest with books, DVDs and recognisably branded objects, however it in any other case has an excellent fee of accuracy.

Other corporations working within the cross-part of visible search and ecommerce which have emerged prior to now few years embrace Slyce, whose slogan is “Give your buyer’s digital camera a purchase button”, and Catchoom, which creates picture recognition and augmented actuality instruments for retail, publishing and different sectors.

Although looking the bodily world has but to cross over into the mainstream (most individuals I’ve talked to about it aren’t even conscious that the know-how exists), that would simply change because the know-how turns into extra correct and more and more widespread.

But ecommerce is just one potential software for visible search. What different makes use of and improvements might we see spring up round visible search sooner or later?

The way forward for visible search?

Aside from the pretty apparent prediction that visible search will turn into extra correct and extra widespread as time goes on, I can think about numerous prospects for visible search going ahead, a few of which exist already on a small scale.

The visible recognition know-how which powers visible search has big potential to function an accessibility help. Image Searcher, the corporate behind CamFind, additionally has an app referred to as TapTapSee which makes use of visible recognition and voiceover know-how to determine objects for visually impaired and blind cellular customers. Another app, Talking Goggles, performs the identical perform utilizing Google Goggles’ object identification know-how.

Although these are purely recognition apps and never search engines as such, Image Searcher have used a substantial amount of the suggestions they obtain from the visually impaired group to combine the identical options into CamFind. It’s straightforward to think about how the 2 ideas, if developed in tandem, might be used to offer a very accessible visible search to visually impaired customers sooner or later.

And if digital camera-based mostly visible search have been mixed with current advances in voice search and pure language processing, it’s potential to think about a future through which the act of looking visually turns into nearly interface-free. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, demonstrated a really comparable functionality at Google I/A when he confirmed off Google’s new voice assistant, Google Assistant.

“For instance, you could be in entrance of this construction in Chicago and ask Google, ”Who designed this?” You don’t have to say ”the bean” or ”the cloud gate.” We perceive your context and we reply that the designer is Anish Kapoor.”

In this instance, the unspoken context for Pichai’s query “Who designed this?” is probably going offered by location knowledge, however it might simply as simply be visible enter, offered by a smartphone digital camera or an improved Google Glass-like system.

I talked about one thing referred to as Splash earlier on on this article. Splash, a search interface developed by photograph group 500px, is a special sort of visible search than any we’ve checked out thus far. The interface is designed to permit customers to visually search 500px’s picture library utilizing color, digitally ‘splashing’ the paint onto a canvas.

As far as visible search engines go, Splash is extra of a enjoyable novelty than a sensible search software. You can solely seek for pictures in one among 5 classes – Landscape, People, Animals, Travel and City – so if you need an image of one thing that doesn’t come beneath a type of, good luck to you. The search outcomes additionally have a tendency to reply extra to which colors are on the canvas than to what you’re making an attempt to depict with it.


Not actually what I was after…

Even so, I just like the totally different take that Splash provides on looking visually, and I assume that the thought has plenty of fascinating potential if it have been developed and refined extra. Other kinds of visible search that we’ve talked about up to now depend upon having an image or an object handy, however what for those who needed to seek for one thing you knew how to attract, however didn’t have an instance of handy?

Another factor I would discover extremely helpful in my work as a journalist (the place I’m typically referred to as upon to seek for inventory photographs) can be the power to seek for a visible idea.

Say I’m on the lookout for an image to symbolize ‘e-mail ROI’ for a bit I’m writing. It can be actually useful if I might run a visible seek for any pictures which mixed visuals referring to e-mail, and visuals referring to cash, indirectly. Maybe a key phrase-based mostly search might get near what I want, however I assume a visible search would be capable of forged a wider, and extra helpful, internet.

Finally, if creating visible search continues to be a precedence for corporations like Pinterest, Bing and Google, I assume probably the most pure evolution of the know-how can be to include augmented actuality. AR is already advancing into the mainstream – not simply with Pokémon Go, however apps like Blippar which fuse AR with visible discovery and visible search so as to add an additional dimension to the world round us.

There’s clear potential for this to develop into a totally-fledged search phenomenon, say with textual content overlays offering details about objects you need to seek for, and the power to work together with gadgets and buy them, eradicating much more friction from ecommerce and enabling customers to purchase issues within the second of inspiration.

I don’t foresee visible search changing the textual content-based mostly selection altogether (or at the least, not for a really very long time). But does opens up a world of thrilling new prospects that may play an enormous half in no matter’s to return for search sooner or later.

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