Is the Camera the ‘New Search Box’ for Local Discovery?

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This post is an excerpt from an upcoming Street Fight white paper. Entitled “Local’s Visual Future: The Rise of AR and Visual Search,” it examines how trends in visual technologies are manifesting in local commerce. The executive summary is below and the full report will publish in the next few weeks. Stay tuned for more excerpts as well as the full report.

“The camera is the new search box.” This has been the rally cry from companies like Pinterest and Google that are embracing “visual search.” This emerging area is defined by apps that let consumers hold up their smartphones to identify and get information about physical world items.

As you might imagine, this has lots of use cases – both whimsical and practical. For the latter, there are local commerce opportunities, such as being able to better identify local storefronts and business attributes (reviews, menu items, hours of operation, notes from friends, etc.).

Though still nascent, visual search builds on a few key trends. Smartphones have increasingly powerful optics; AI and machine learning support computer vision to identify items; and there’s behavioral alignment with millennials who use the smartphone camera as a communication tool.

These drivers make visual search a close cousin to an equally opportune and emerging area: Augmented Reality (AR). It similarly uses computer vision to identify surroundings, then goes one step further in overlaying graphics… with equally whimsical and practical applications.

AR can overlay graphics for fun (a la Pokémon Go) or practicality, such as arrows that lead you to a store. The more practical end of that spectrum presents opportunity for local media providers to add AR as a component to their local search and discovery products.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because it was the unfulfilled promise of Google Glass. But smart glasses – the modality in which AR is often envisioned – are several years from meaningful consumer adoption. That’s mostly due to cost, bulkiness and cultural/stylistic resistance.

This has caused the AR world to shift attention to the smartphone as the vessel for AR experiences. The benefit there is that we all carry one. The installed base already exists in 3.2 billion smartphones, many of which possess the optics and graphical processing to run AR apps.

This realization has culminated over the past year in major tech giants planting their stake in the mobile AR soil. Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon have each launched varying degrees of mobile AR efforts. And smaller players like Pinterest and Wayfair are blitzing the opportunity too.

Each of these players take a different approach — most often aligned with their strengths and goals. Facebook wants AR to boost multimedia social sharing. Apple wants it to sell more iPhones. Google wants to drive (visual) search. And Amazon wants you to order more goods.

But most exciting and timely are the recent app development kits released from Apple and Google. ARkit and ARCore democratize AR app creation by putting into the hands of millions of developers, and hundreds of millions of consumers. The result could be an explosion of AR apps.

But how will this play out? How long will it take? What does it mean for local media and commerce? What will be best practices in developing AR apps? And how will apps best integrate with existing media or search products? These questions are tackled throughout this report.

Mike Boland has been a tech & media analyst for the past two decades, specifically covering mobile, local, and emerging technologies. He has written for Street Fight since 2011. More can be seen at