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Much more than point and shoot


That camera in your cellphone can do much more than take snaps and shoot video, thanks to a number of innovative software solutions. We take a closer look at some applications that add a new dimension to cellphone cameras.

It seemed like a normal building - a multi-storey affair in the middle of Delhi. So I could not really understand why someone would want to keep pointing his cellphone in picture-taking mode - held horizontally - at it for several minutes. After a while, curiosity got the better of me and I asked the gent if he was some sort of engineer who was observing the architecture of the building. I got a quizzical look and a response that left me gaping like a fish: "No, I just wanted to find out who was sending Tweets from within that building."

No, he was not using some special device. What he had was pretty much a normal Motorola Milestone handset. And yet all he needed to do was start an application and point the phone's camera at a building to get all sorts of information about it, from reviews and history to, as in this case, who was tweeting what from within it! Doing all the magic is some software, the GPS in the device, and most of all, the camera.

Vinay Goel, the country head (products), Google India, had once told me, "Do not treat the camera on your phone as something just to click pictures. It is actually the eye of the phone - it can recognise things and tell you more about them. " That may sound ridiculous at one level, but a closer look reveals more than a smidgen of truth in it - allied with features like GPS, internet connectivity, maps and a whole lot of apps, a phone's camera today is capable of delivering much more than pretty pictures and videos.


Perhaps the most spectacular use of the phone's camera has been in the emergence of augmented reality (AR) browsers that let you identify a place or object by just pointing your phone's camera at it. Basically, the phone works out your location using GPS, uses the compass (many phones come with them these days) to find out which way you are facing and then scours the net for information about the place or object you have pointed the camera at and then delivers it to your screen, often superimposed on top of what you see through your camera. It is almost like seeing an image with information all over it - you could get reviews of the place, articles from Wikipedia and details of transport from and to the place. It all depends on the app you use - and there are a surfeit of them around, from Nokia's Point and Find to Google Goggles, all of them dab hands at identification.
If identifying a place or object and getting information about it is not enough for you, you can use your camera to get other information as well. And the most interesting is perhaps finding out what people in the vicinity are doing online. With services like Twitter and YouTube now allowing you to give out your location, it is possible to just point the camera of your phone at a place or just switch it on, and find out who is tweeting what or what has been uploaded on YouTube from the area where you are standing. Depending on the app you use, you can see pictures, videos and tweets from around you (you can specify the range you want covered) even if you are not logged in to a particular service. There is also information on events happening in the vicinity from exhibitions to concerts and you can even search around for places like restaurants, cafes and ATMs. Every time you move your device, your options will change, as what the camera sees will change too.


Less impressive but no less important is the emergence of the cellphone camera as a scanner of sorts. There are applications like ScanR that will let you take the photograph of a document or a scribble board and will then process it and send it to you in PDF format, making the writing as legible as possible. Then there are a number of applications that let you use the camera phone as a bar code scanner, such as the very aptly named Barcode Scanner App - you just take a picture of the bar code and you get details about the product it has been slapped on. It may not sound like much, but can be of tremendous help when you are in a new place and are not really sure about what you are purchasing. Finally there are the card readers that are now found in most cameraphones, which automatically transfer details of a person's visiting card to your phone's contact list the moment you take a snap of the card, thus saving finger wear and tear and eye strain!


Perhaps the most spectacular use of the cellphone's camera might just be around the corner - the ability to point the camera at a person and identify him or her. While there are a few apps, like Augmented ID, that let you do just that, their effectiveness is limited as they can only identify a very limited number of people whose faces have been tagged with names. Nevertheless, even at this initial stage, it is staggering to be able to point your phone's camera at a person and get not just their name and mail addresses but also in some cases details of what they have been posting on their social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Of course, apps like these are going to raise the hackles of the privacy protection brigade, and will also need access to a wide variety of records to be really effective but work on them is underway and there can be no doubting that identifying a person is the next big thing that your camera will do.


With applications like these proliferating and getting more effective by the day, the camera of a cellphone is moving well beyond its role as an image clicker and video conferencing wannabe. A phone with a camera today can tell you where you are standing, from where to catch the next bus to a particular venue, the location of the nearest restaurant with reviews of its best dishes, details of Tweets floating out of buildings in your vicinity, and in some cases, even the name of the person sitting next to you on a bench in the park. Yes, these are early days and most applications that add such functions to the camera have to be refined further to make them really effective - information about Indian places is limited, for instance, and most apps tend to lose their way totally indoors when a GPS connection is lost. What's more, not all cameraphones equal - some are able to do more depending on the platform they use, while others are still best in their traditional point and clicking role. Still, going by the speed at which technology is developing, the day is not too far off when your handset's camera will be more of a guide than a retainer of visual memories.


This application opens the phone's camera and plays layers of information, ranging from articles to videos in the vicinity to what people around you are Tweeting over it.


To find out more about what you are looking at, just start this app and take a snap of it. Excellent when it comes to products and can also be used as a card scanner.


Take a picture of a document and this service will convert it into PDF format and mail it to you, just as if you had stuck the document into a real scanner.


To find out more about a person you are seeing, just turn on this app and point your phone's camera at them. Its capabilities are limited right now, but it's staggering when it works!


The name says it all. Start the app and point the camera at the place or object you want to get information about.


Designed for those tangled up by London's complex tube system, this app turns on the camera and then shows the location of different tube stations in your vicinity depending on where you point the camera.


To get an idea of where you are.


To find out where you are facing.


To pull out information from the internet, depending on your location and the direction you are facing in as well as the picture that you are seeing.


The clearer the picture, the better the identification of a place, object or person.


All the information collected about a place will be of little use if the screen on which it has to be displayed is too small.


Imagine running a camera, GPS, internet, a web browser, and a compass all at the same time. A device with a weak browser will just not be able to handle it.


All the technical specifications will come to naught if there are no applications that will leverage your camera's abilities. Right now, the force seems to be with devices running Android and the iOS, which have more apps like these.

Reader's opinion (1)

Niloufer ShaikhNov 15th, 2010 at 10:43 AM

Great article, am sharing this on Facebook.

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