Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
February 28, 2009 8:33 PM

Point And Shoot And Shop

Scan the barcode of any product in any store using your mobile phone and you can find out what people say about it, where you can get it cheapest, or you can even order it online right from your phone. This was the promise of mobile e-commerce.

The promise is now a reality.

"Have you seen this app for the iPhone yet?" my friend asked. I just laughed and thought to myself, "does he know what I do for a living?" While I still swear by my BlackBerry Bold, I made the decision to also get an iPod Touch late last year to familiarize myself with the platform and, more importantly, play with all of the games and applications. I thought I had seen it all - from the freebies to some of the paid applications - but the Touch is missing both the camera and the voice functionality, so some of the cooler applications are neutered on it (must get an iPhone too now).

Just then he took a picture of a book on my coffee table using the SnapTell iPhone application, and within seconds the screen was displaying the right book with reviews, links to other websites (including a Wikipedia entry) and online prices from multiple retailers.

Welcome to the future of shopping.

What kind of technology drives this? It must be some serious photo recognition software? This is all SnapTell says about it on their website:

"SnapTell has created core patent pending proprietary technology for image matching that works with databases of millions of images. This highly accurate and robust algorithm for image matching is called 'Accumulated Signed Gradient' (ASG). Our technology works effectively on pictures taken with any camera phone in the world, including ones that have VGA cameras or relatively low resolution (320x240) cameras. Also, our robust matching engine can handle pictures taken in real life conditions that may have lighting artifacts, focus/motion blur, perspective distortion and partial coverage. The technology works in a wide variety of real life scenarios including print advertisements, outdoor billboards, brand logos, product packaging, branded cans, bottles and wine labels."

Regardless of how it's done, there is no doubt that this adds many new and fascinating layers both to marketing and the in-store retail experience.

How are stores going to compete when every customer can walk over to a manager and prove that they can get the exact same product for cheaper somewhere else? How are stores going to change what they stock and the types of brands they sell when customers are going to be so empowered with information and reviews that it's going to be very hard to carry items that no one likes? How is this going to get ever-more powerful when the iPhone's GPS capabilities kick in and SnapTell will be able to tell you the varying prices for the exact same product within walking distance?

The SnapTell iPhone app might be one of the most powerful indications of how customers are really going to control the shopping experience going forward... and we're just beginning to scratch the surface.

By Mitch Joel