(Credit: Screenshot: Download.com/Tom McNamara)

It's an idea that once sounded like science fiction: Point a camera at an object, and the camera will tell you what you're looking at: a bridge, your cat (right down to the breed), a car, or a place of business. Perhaps it could even translate signage into different languages via augmented reality. Believe it or not, Google Lens is making this reality, and the latest move is to put it inside of the Camera app on the company's Pixel and Nexus phones.

SEE: Google's AR Measure app for Android turns your phone into a 3D ruler

Since we have a Pixel phone on-hand, we gave this version of Google Lens a spin. Once you've updated the Camera app to the latest version, it's quite straightforward: Open it, tap the menu button, then tap Lens toward the bottom. This switches you to Lens mode, where you can just look at an object through the Pixel's camera viewfinder and tap on it to get more info.

(Credit: Screenshot: Download.com/Tom McNamara)

As you pan your phone around you, you'll see a constellation of white dots, and some of these will turn different colors, indicating that Lens has identified an object or spotted some text. Tapping those colored dots will show you a description of what Lens thinks it's looking at, and you can vote thumbs up or thumbs down to help it with its accuracy.

In our testing, Lens was hit-or-miss. While it misidentified a staple remover as a clothes hanger, it recognized a tape dispenser as "office supplies" and could identify a can of Diet Coke.

Unsurprisingly, lighting and camera angles play a big part with Lens, just like they do when your brain is interpreting its surroundings using your own eyes. So if Lens is having difficulties, you can sometimes help it by shifting your view of an object until more colored dots pop up.

When you're done with Lens mode, tap the X in the upper left corner of your screen, and it will return to the Camera app.

(Credit: Screenshot: Download.com/Tom McNamara)

All of the regular Camera functions disappear when you enable Lens mode, so Google's update to the Camera app is essentially just a shortcut to the Google Assistant app, where Lens remains tightly integrated. Although Lens in the Camera app is exclusive to Google's own Android phones, the iOS version of Google Assistant also has Lens, so Apple fans aren't out of luck. Google Lens does not yet exist as a standalone app. And given how much it plugs into the Google Assistant, that probably isn't happening any time soon.

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Either way, hooking Lens into the company's Camera app is a benefit for the user, and reserving it as a perk for Googles own phones makes a lot of sense for the business. According to market research firm IDC, Google shipped 3.9 million Pixels in 2017. While that's double the previous year, Apple sold 77.3 million phones just in the last quarter of 2017, during which time Samsung sold 74.1 million. IDC estimates that a whopping 1.5 billion mobile phones are sold every year (though not all of them use iOS or Android).

The takeaways

  1. Lens in the new Google Camera app is essentially just a shortcut to Lens within the Google Assistant app.
  2. Beefing up apps on Google's flagship devices may increase sales, and all signs point to Google launching a third line of Pixels this fall.
  3. Putting Lens in the Camera app also puts the Google Assistant in front of more people, which can help make Google's AI smarter and more effective over time.

See also

Tom is the senior editor covering Windows at Download.com.