Google Lens was first announced back in May at I/O 2017. It launched exclusively on the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL earlier this month, although it’s also now available for the original Pixel phones.
I’ve been fiddling with Lens on my Pixel 2 over the past two weeks that I’ve had the phone. And, although this is still just a preview version, I wanted to give you a look at the functionality and what it does in its current state.
And, nope; that’s not a typo.
Lens isn’t a full-blown app, at least not for now. As of this moment, it’s a simple function invoked from within the Google Photos app. It’ll eventually come to Assistant and maybe even a standalone app, but like I said before – this is only a preview version.
Hopefully, Lens will evolve into something much greater than it is today. And it’s not bad, right now. It just needs some work.
How to use Google Lens
Even though Lens is one of Google’s selling points for the Pixel 2, you might not know it even exists. There’s no icon in your camera or app drawer, and searching for it in the device settings doesn’t return any results. The only way to access Google Lens, for now, is from within individual pictures in Google Photos.
This is understandable in some aspects. Being that we are talking about a preview version, I can see why it’s not widely available. What’s curious is why Google would tout it as a feature on its flagship device, when it’s not quite ready for prime time.
At any rate, see the screenshot above for where to find Google Lens in the Photos app.
Some things Google Lens does well
While I’ve got that photo of the Stone Sour concert flyer fresh in your mind, let’s go over some areas where Google Lens does a great job.
For starters, Lens recognizes the concert venue’s address. It detects 504 E. Locust Street, Des Moines, Iowa and then displays a Google Maps icon you can click for directions and navigation.
Now, say you wanted to go to this show. I did go, by the way – it was sold out, and it was a great time. But say you wanted tickets. Lens recognizes the band’s website and displays a Chrome icon that opens the URL to said website where you can buy said tickets.
This is handy for those times when you’re leaving a concert and someone hands you a flyer. Now, you can simply snap a picture and go back to it later for clickable links to everything you need.
You can pass the flyer along to somebody else, or throw it in the trash on your way to the car. Don’t be a litterbug, though!
Venues and businesses
In addition to directions to the venue, you can find out information about the venue, like ratings and hours of operation. For the record, you’ve gotta check out a show at Wooly’s if you’re ever in the Des Moines area.
It’s also worth stating that this works for businesses as well, not just venues.
So now you’ve got tickets to the show. You’re probably not going to forget the date, but just in case, Google Lens has you covered. It recognizes the concert date – May 22nd in this case – and allows you to create an event in your Google Calendar.
You’ll still have to fill in the event details manually. Lens isn’t quite intelligent enough to string everything together for you, which would be awesome if it did. Perhaps, as the functionality evolves, we’ll see something like this on down the line.
For this example, I took a photo of a sticker on my refrigerator to show Google Lens’ ability to recognize phone numbers. For the record, it detected the Pet Poison HelpLine website in this photo, as well.
Video games, DVDs, and books
One area that Google Lens really excels in is with products like video games, DVDs, and books. It had no trouble identifying Resident Evil: Biohazard, Beetlejuice, or The Business of the 21st Century.
Google Lens also detects the names of celebrities, authors, historical figures, and other well-known people. To illustrate this, I took a photo of an Earl Nightengale quote. Lens links directly to his page on Wikipedia to provide more information about the late American author.
Some areas where Google Lens needs improvement
When taking that photo of the Poison HelpLine, I got to thinking. How well does Google Lens handle handwritten notes? And considering my handwriting isn’t the prettiest, I’d be able to provide a perfect test example.
Here is the first place I managed to trick Google Lens by writing on a notepad with lined-paper. I tried again on a piece of printer paper with no lines, and this time Lens did its thing without a hitch.
Another place where Lens seems to drop the ball is detecting products. For instance, it incorrectly directs me to Hungry Jack’s Wikipedia (the Australian Burger King), rather than the Hungry Jack (the pancake syrup manufacturer) website. It did, however, detect Skippy peanut butter properly, so it looks like it’s hit or miss at times. In fact, Lens failed to identify the bottle of Medeiros olive oil altogether.
For this example, I took a couple of photos of the Iowa State Capitol Building here in Des Moines, Iowa. In one, the building is detected just fine. In the other, Google Lens overlooks the buildings and points out the trees, instead.
In these examples, Lens failed altogether. These are well-known sculptures here in my city; works of art, if you will. And Lens is supposed to detect art and give you information about it, but in these specific cases, it does not do that.
Final thoughts and rating
Google Lens is cool – don’t get me wrong. But it’s not quite ready for prime time. As you can see from my review, it’s not always 100% accurate. Sometimes, it fails altogether.
That said, it’s not bad, by any means.
It will be interesting to see this feature evolve, and hopefully, it only gets better as time passes. But, if you’re not using a Pixel or Pixel 2 device and you’re jealous because you don’t have access to Google Lens – don’t be. You’re not missing out on much. Yet.