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Intelligent Machines

Scan Anything and Let Your Phone Do the Rest

A new app lets users capture visual and audio input with a smart phone and search for related information.

Many people rely on their smart phones to search for things online. At the movies, users might try to identify an actor from a film trailer. At a concert, they might hear a song and check which album it was on. When shopping, they might try to find the best deal on a product by searching nearby stores. Apps that identify songs, images, and video, or that read barcodes, make it easier to do this.

New discovery: With a new app from Digimarc, someone could scan photos from a newspaper or other media to pull up more information—provided those images are in the company’s database.

Now Digimarc, based in Beaverton, Oregon, has combined these functions into Discover, a single app designed to identify input from a person’s environment and pull up related information.

Similar to apps like Shazam, SoundHound, or Barcode Scanner, Discover uses a smart phone’s camera and microphone to “capture” a sample of audio or an image, then identifies it through Digimarc’s own database and searches for related material online.

Unlike these apps, though, Discover combines a variety of media search functions into a single app that will allow users to scan images, audio, video, and even barcodes or QR codes (two-dimensional versions of barcodes)—all without switching between apps. Discover is available for free on both iOS and Android phones.

However, Discover’s usefulness is limited by the number of companies that utilize the system. As of yet, this system is only implemented by a small number of publications.

Discover requires “digital watermarks” to identify images and video. These work much like the watermarking used on currency or official documents, by inserting a transparent image on top of another image. The difference is that digital watermarking is specifically designed to be recorded and decoded by software.

Digimarc offers an online service that advertisers and companies can use to purchase and place watermarks in their ads and images. Then, when a user scans one of those images with a watermark, the Discover app searches through Digimarc’s database. Once the app has identified an item through the database, it searches online and brings up related information on the user’s phone.

While Discover’s image and video search functions only work with the company’s own digital watermarking system, its audio search takes advantage of the information stored by the digital media company Gracenote. Barcode searches, however, use general Web searches to locate relevant data.

Tony Rodriguez, chief technology officer at Digimarc, believes that the innovative aspect of the app is that it not only consolidates several search technologies, it uses them concurrently. He believes that the future of mobile search apps lies in this direction. Rodriguez says that Digimarc hopes to work with partners who will expand on Digimarc’s vision. He says, “Our goal isn’t to be the end-all platform, but to add to a growing group.”

But not everyone feels that Discover is a necessary tool for consumers. Sean Owen, one of the creators of Barcode Scanner, the most popular barcode and QR code scanner for Android, feels that even his own app “is a bit of a novelty and niche on smart phones—and video and audio search even more so.” While Owen thinks the idea of a consolidated app is “very cool,” he feels that consumers, including himself, would rather “choose individual best-of-breed apps” rather than one app that doesn’t perform as well, but covers multiple tasks.

Stephen OGrady, principal analyst at RedMonk, feels that Digimarc’s decision to use its own database and digital watermarking system will hold it back from reaching the mainstream. And while consolidated search apps may become popular in the long term, he warns, “Over the short term, we’re talking about changing the core navigating behavior of hundreds of millions or billions of users.”

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