Psst: Come close. Your Android phone has a little-known superpower — a futuristic system for bridging the physical world around you and the digital universe on your device. It’s one of Google’s best kept secrets. And it can save you tons of time and effort.
It’s a little somethin’ called Google Lens, and it’s been lurking around on Android and quietly getting more and more capable for years. Google curiously doesn’t make a big deal about it, and you’d really have to go out of your way to even realize it exists. But once you uncover it, well, you’ll feel like you have a magic wand in your pocket.
At its core, Google Lens is best described as a search engine for the real world. It uses artificial intelligence to identify text and objects both within images and in a live view from your phone’s camera, and it then lets you learn about and interact with those elements in all sorts of interesting ways. But while Lens’s ability to, say, identify a flower, look up a book, or give you info about a landmark is certainly impressive, it’s the system’s more mundane-seeming productivity powers that are far more likely to find a place in your daily life.
So grab the nearest Android gadget, go install the Google Lens app, if you haven’t already, and get ready to teach your phone some spectacularly useful new tricks.
Google Lens trick #1: Copy text from the real world
Google Lens’s most potent power and the one I rely on most frequently is its ability to grab text from a physical document — a paper, a book, a whiteboard, or anything else with words on it — and then copy that text onto your phone’s clipboard. From there, you can easily paste the text into a Google Doc, a note, an email, a Slack chat, or anywhere else imaginable.
To do that, just open up the Google Lens app, tap the document icon, and aim your phone at the document. Within about a second, you’ll see Lens highlight the text.
Tap your finger onto any area of the image, and you’ll be able to select the exact portion of text you want as if it were regular ol’ digital text on a website.
All that’s left is to hit the “Copy” command in the panel at the bottom of the screen, and every last word will be on your system clipboard and ready to paste wherever your pretty little heart desires.
Google Lens trick #2: Send text from the real world to your computer
Let’s face it: Most of us aren’t working only from our Android phones. If you need to get some real-world text onto your computer, Lens can handle that, too.
Just go through the same steps we did a second ago, but this time, look for the “Copy to computer” option in the panel at the bottom of the screen. As long as you’re actively signed into Chrome with the same Google account on a computer — any computer, whether it’s Windows, Mac, Linux, or Chrome OS — that option should appear. And when you tap it, you’ll get a list of all available destinations:
All you’ve gotta do is pick the one you want, and just like magic, the text from the physical document will be on that computer’s clipboard — ready and waiting to be pasted wherever you want it. Hit Ctrl-V (or Cmd-V, on a Mac), and shazam! It’ll pop into any text field, in any app or process where pasting is supported.
Google Lens trick #3: Hear text from the real world read aloud
Maybe you’ve just been handed a long memo, a printed-out brief of some sort, or a letter from your dear Aunt Sally. Whatever it is, give your eyes a breather and let Lens read it for you.
Just point your phone at the paper, exactly as we did before, and tap that document icon once more. Select whatever text you want — and this time, look for the little “Listen” option in the bottom-of-screen panel.
Tap that bad boy, and the Google Lens app will actually read the selected text out loud to you, in a soothingly pleasant voice. Hey, Google: How ’bout a bedtime story while we’re at it?
Google Lens trick #4: Interact with text from an image
In addition to the live stuff, Lens can pull and process text from images — including both actual photos you’ve taken and screenshots you’ve captured.
That latter part opens up some pretty interesting possibilities. Say, for instance, you’ve just gotten an email with a tracking number in it, but the tracking number is some funky type of text that annoyingly can’t be copied. (This seems to happen to me way too often.) Or maybe you’re looking at a web page or presentation where the text for some reason isn’t selectable.
Well, grab a screenshot — by pressing your phone’s power and volume-down buttons together — then make your way over to the Google Lens app. Tap the square-shaped photo icon in the app’s upper-right corner, select the screenshot you just captured, and then select the text you want.
From there, you can copy the text, send it to a computer, or perform any of Lens’s other boundary-defying tricks. Speaking of which…
Google Lens trick #5: Search for text from any physical document or image
After you’ve selected any manner of text from within the Google Lens app, swipe your finger toward the left on the row of options in that bottom-of-screen panel — the one with “Copy text,” “Copy to computer,” and so on. You’d never realize it from looking, but even more options are hiding to the right of those initial choices.
One of ’em is the simple but supremely useful “Search.” (And sometimes, Lens will even put related results right there in that bottom-of-screen panel, without any additional searching required.) Keep that in mind as a super-easy way to get info on any text from any physical document or captured image without having to manually peck in the words on your own.
And on a related note…
Google Lens trick #6: Create a calendar event
Anytime you see something with a date involved — a flyer, a billboard, an appointment card, or even a physical invitation to your dear Aunt Sally’s weekly canasta game — save yourself the trouble of typing the info into your digital calendar and instead just open up the Google Lens app.
Aim your phone’s camera at the paper and then tap on the date. Lens should give you a “Create calendar event option” at the start of its bottom-panel choices, and tapping it will beam the info right over to your preferred calendar app so you can tweak it as needed and save.
Google Lens trick #7: Save someone’s contact information
If you find yourself holding a business card and thinking, “Well, blimey, I sure as heckfire don’t want to type all of this into my contacts app,” first, congratulate yourself on the excellent use of blimey — and then sit your beautiful person-shell back and let Lens handle the heavy lifting for you.
Open Lens, point your phone’s camera at the card, and tap on the person’s name. The Google Lens app should recognize the nature of the info and prompt you to add a contact.
One more tap, and it’s done.
Google Lens trick #8: Email, call, text, or navigate to a website
Got an address or number you need to get onto your phone for a specific sort of action? It could be on a business card, on a letter, or even on the front of a door. Whatever the case, just open the Google Lens app, point your phone at it, and tap the text. (Or, option B: Snap a photo of the info in question and then pull it up in the Lens app later.)
Once Lens sees it, it’ll offer to do whatever’s most appropriate for the sort of info involved. Then, with a single tap, you’ll have the address ready to roll in a new email draft, the number ready to call or text in your dialer or messaging app, or the website pulled up and ready for your viewing in your browser — no time-wasting typing required.
Google Lens trick #9: Translate text from the real world
If, in some theoretical future where travel is again common, you find yourself staring at a sign in another language and wondering what in the world it says, remember that the Google Lens app has a built-in translation feature. To find it, open the app, aim your phone at the text, and tap the translate icon — the circle with an “A” inside of it at the far left of the bottom row.
Before you know it, Lens will replace the words on your screen with their English equivalents (or with a translation in whatever language you select, if English isn’t your tasse de thé). It’s almost spooky how effective it is.
Google Lens trick #10: Scan barcodes and QR codes
‘Twas a time when Android code-reading apps were all the rage — and plenty of folks still have ’em hangin’ around today. So long as the Google Lens app is on your phone, though, guess what? You don’t need anything else. Just open up Lens, aim your camera at any barcode or QR code, and poof: Lens will offer to show you whatever that code contains, faster than you say “What does QR stand for, anyway?”
Google Lens trick #11: Use Lens from Image Search, Photos, and your phone’s camera
All those tricks we just talked about can work not only from the actual Google Lens app but also from a few other potentially useful places on your phone:
- Google Image Search: Anytime you’re looking at an image within images.google.com on your phone’s browser, keep an eye out for the lens icon in its upper-right corner. Tapping that will activate Lens and give you any relevant info about whatever’s being shown.
- Google Photos: See that third icon along the bottom when you open an image in Photos? That’s Lens! Tapping it will fire up Lens and let you copy text, activate links, and get additional context about anything Lens is able to recognize.
- Your camera: On Pixel phones and a handful of other devices, you can find Lens right within your regular camera app. Just open the camera and then press and hold your finger on any spot in the viewfinder to launch a Lens search for the item in view. The results will pop up right then and there, without the need for any app-switching or extra searching.
Google Lens trick #12: Get to Lens without lifting a finger
Last but not least, a bit of a meta tip: When you want to open the Google Lens app in a hurry, skip the usual swiping and tapping and instead say: “Hey, Google: Open Google Lens.” Your friendly neighborhood Assistant will happily oblige.
Ahh…being a mobile-tech magician has never been so satisfying.
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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]
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