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Google Goggles sets sights on visual search

In the future, when Google Inc. rules over the entire universe, you won’t have to necessarily type anything to do a search -- you’ll just look at an object.

Science fiction? Well, Google indeed seems bent on taking over the world (or at least all parts of it that can be digitized), but search-on-sight is far-fetched.

Maybe.

Last week the company debuted the experimental, free program Google Goggles as its first visual search product. It doesn’t use the naked eye -- that would require surgery beyond Google’s powers, so far.

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Instead, the program uses smart phones equipped with Google’s Android operating system. The phone’s camera takes a picture of something, such as a building, book cover, artwork or household item. Recognition technology then identifies the object, and search results start rolling in.

When it works.

Google admits, on the program’s site -- www.google.com/ mobile/goggles -- that Google Goggles is “still in its infancy.” It introduced the program along with several features that are of more practical use, including near-real-time searches that include information that just hit the Internet.

Also announced were schemes to incorporate tweets into search results.

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But as useful as those features might be, it’s Google Goggles that has the high gee-whiz quotient.

So, how well does it work while still in its “infancy?”

Amazingly well on some items and badly enough on others that sometimes it’s unintentionally funny. It thought Los Angeles City Hall was an amusement park. But more on that later.

Google admits the program doesn’t work so hot with certain types of objects, including animals, plants and cars. A series of tests I did on the program stayed away from those.

Instead, using a Motorola Droid smart phone with the downloaded Google Goggles app up and running, I tried it on recommended items.

* Books: As directed, I positioned the phone camera close to the cover of a book -- “The Open Door” by Peter Brook -- filling the entire screen.

I took the picture, and a blue line appeared that moved across the screen as if it was scanning the image.

I’m not sure if that was just for show, but within 10 seconds the search result popped on the screen. Google Goggles got it exactly right, and clicking on the hit produced all sorts of information about the book, including a summary and price.

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Gee whiz, for sure.

The next book, “Wright Sites,” about Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings, produced a curious result as its first hit: a 19th-century book by Theodore S. Wright, “Prejudice Against the Colored Man.”

Oh well, it got Wright correct. And scrolling down the phone screen, the fourth hit was “Wright Sites.”

A test on “Bauer,” a book about Bauer pottery, also got it right on the fourth result.

* Artwork: This is where Google Goggles really shone.

I pointed the camera phone at Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Red Cannas,” one of her famed oil paintings of a flower.

Well, it was not the painting itself -- it was on a monthly calendar. And I was careful to not include her name or the name of the painting, so that Google Goggles would get no text clues.

The program came up with the right answer in less than 15 seconds.

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Even more impressive was a test on a black-and-white printout of Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” painting.

Again, Google Goggles quickly came up with the correct answer.

* Business card: Google says that the program can read a card and put the information in an online address book.

If this worked, it would be one of the most practical uses of the program.

Unfortunately, it didn’t. I tried several times to get it to read my plain-looking Los Angeles Times card. Sometimes it got my name, address, e-mail or phone number right, but never all in the same try. Parts of the information were always garbled.

* Objects: I tried to get Google Goggles to recognize several everyday items, including a stapler, microwave oven, laser printer, bottle of wine and L.A. Dodgers foam finger.

The only one that worked was the wine. The program correctly identified a bottle of Little Penguin wine from Australia, except that it got the vintage year wrong.

* Buildings: Another potentially handy function was a disaster.

Google Goggles is supposed to use the phone’s internal GPS chip and electronic compass to know exactly where you are, and then identify a building the camera is pointing at. Without even taking a picture.

But pointing the camera at one of the most famous Los Angeles buildings, City Hall, brought forth a variety of incorrect results.

One of them: Six Flags Magic Mountain, which was perhaps political commentary.

So, Google Goggles is hit-and-miss as it now stands. And it’s hard to know how practical it will be, even when it’s improved, given that typing is not all that difficult.

And for those who can’t type, there are already speech-recognition programs.

Also, there is the fact that you have to use a camera phone to get it to work.

It would be a lot handier if Google could get the images directly from our minds.

Somehow, I think the company might be working on it.

david.colker@latimes.com


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