Google Lens is the intelligent function in your smart phone that identifies the content of your photos. And it could almost be a case study of modern tech: how it sometimes starts out almost useless, then quietly improves over time. A year ago, Google Lens was lousy. Now it’s impressive.

Google Lens problems

When I reviewed the Google Pixel 2 XL – a phone I’m still using – towards the end of 2017, I was somewhat unimpressed by Google Lens. It misidentified the Old Parliament House here in Canberra – one of the most famous buildings in the land – as the New Parliament House. Which is also one of the most famous buildings in the land. Indeed, it seemed quite oblivious to just about all Canberra buildings.

But in April 2018, after our Managing Editor had some fun identifying breeds of dogs with Google Lens, I revisited the matter. The result: “Google Lens – I’m not yet convinced”.

It decided that a distinctive (but unnamed) Canberra home was in fact the National Portrait Gallery. But when I asked it to identify the real National Portrait Gallery, all it could manage was “Hmm … not seeing this clearly yet”.

How about the neo-Grecian lines of the National Library of Australia? Why, Google Lens confidently proclaimed, that was the “MOKE USA Corporate Office”. That, incidentally, is located in Miami Florida. (Moke? Turns out that they still make the Mini Moke! One litre motor, eight colours, front wheel drive, starting at $US18K.)

And a different angle of the Old Parliament House was “identified” as being the “Town Square, Las Vegas”.

A Visit to the National Museum of Australia

Over the Christmas break I visited the National Museum of Australia. Its architecture is weird but striking. I grabbed a couple of snaps with the Pixel 2 XL and ran Google Lens on them to see what it would do. These days, it indicates it’s processing by popping stars in and out over the image. After a few seconds it came back with an answer:

Google Lens
Stars showing over photo as Google Lens processes it (left); The right answer (right)

Yes, the National Museum of Australia. Correctly identified. I repeated the process from weird angles, inside and out. The answer was the same each time:

Google Lens
Four different scenes, all correctly identified

Success!

Not all was perfect. In the foyer is an old Holden with a small caravan. Google Lens was uncertain on the first two shots, and suggested maybe it was a Chevrolet or perhaps a Studebaker (Holden was present, further down the list of options). On the third one, taken from further away, it was identified firmly as the National Museum of Australia. Fair enough, given the location.

Revisiting the old photos

So, what about those April 2018 failures? I ran Google Lens on the same photos.

What had been a home misidentified as the National Portrait Gallery was no longer misidentified. Instead Google Lens suggested a few modern style homes as possible matches. Fair enough.

Google Lens
The old, misleading, result (left); the new uncertain result (right)

Google Lens had not been able to identify the real National Portrait Gallery then. But now it did so firmly:

Google Lens
The old, inconclusive, result (left); the new, correct, result (right)

The National Library Australia was now found to be, well, the National Library of Australia, instead of a business in Florida:

Google Lens
The National Library of Australia moves from Florida (left) to Australia (right)

And the Old Parliament House in both versions is now held by Google Lens to be what it really is, and neither a town square in Las Vegas, nor the replacement building which opened 61 years later:

Google Lens
Google Lens correctly identifies Australia’s Old Parliament House

Conclusion

Software like this is a work in process. In less than twelve months, Google Lens has gone from almost useless in identifying Canberra landmarks, to very useful indeed. As more photos accumulate in Google’s capacious servers, and its identification algorithms are further tweaked, it’ll just keep getting better and better.

Within a few years, I reckon you’ll be able to use Google Lens to identify everything and everywhere, just with a snap of your Android camera. Or on your iPhone, if you have Google Photos installed.