By Elizabeth Preske
August 01, 2019
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Elizabeth Preske

When Google sent me to Oaxaca, Mexico to test out their new Google Pixel 3a phone, I was more than excited to play with the much-talked about Lens feature. Google Lens, an image recognition technology which enables you to "search what you see," is essentially a way for you to point your phone at anything that catches your eye and look it up on Google.

With five functions (Auto, Translate, Text, Shopping, and Dining) Lens becomes a useful and convenient tool for the curious-minded traveler, a means to learn more about the world around you.

While Pixel users can find the feature in the Camera app and Google Assistant, Lens isn't solely available on Pixel phones. If you have another Android phone, such as the Samsung Galaxy S10, you can download the Google Lens app from the Google Play Store. iPhone users can get in on the action, too, as Lens can be found in the Google app for iOS.

As a non-Spanish speaking tourist in an unfamiliar city, I found the Auto, Translate, and Dining functions in Lens particularly helpful. So if you're heading abroad and want to learn how to use Lens to make your trip easier, read on.

Auto

If you’re wandering down the street and come across a mysterious building or landmark you want to learn more about, just point your Lens at it using the Auto function. Google will fetch the info for you, sometimes with links to different websites featuring the attraction. Other times, Lens will pull up a quick summary and Google reviews in case you're itching to know whether you should squeeze one more item into your itinerary. Eager to test this tool out, I used it to learn the name of a gorgeous cathedral I passed on my way to dinner one night. A couple of quick taps on the phone and voilà: there I was facing the Basilica of Our Lady of Solitude.

Elizabeth Preske

The feature also works on plants, fruits, vegetables, and animals. With its abundance of foreign produce, the Mercado Benito Juárez acted as a playground for my group of seven, our phones at the ready. Directing my Lens at a display of spiky fruit, Google pulled up two results: rambutan and lychee. Although Lens could not precisely identify the fruit, the accompanying images helped me figure it out (it was rambutan).

Briana Feigon; Elizabeth Preske

You need Wi-Fi or cellular data in order for this feature to work, so if you don’t have Internet, take a photo anyway. Later, you can pull up the picture on your phone and press the Lens icon at the bottom of the screen. Google Lens will tell you what it is — helpful for when you’re looking through your pictures weeks later and can’t remember what the tour guide said about that building.

Translate

When you travel to a country where you don’t speak the language, Lens can help make the language barrier easier to navigate. Select the Translate function within Lens, point your phone at any foreign text — signs, menus, labels, stickers, books, you name it — and Google will translate the words in English. In an Oaxacan shop, I used Lens to read the label on a bag of coffee beans.

Elizabeth Preske

It might take a couple minutes to read the translation. Sometimes the text doesn't translate well, while other times the lines of translated text overlap. If that happens, just keep pointing your phone at the text: Lens periodically updates the words and sentences to make them more clear and give users a general understanding of their meaning.

If English isn’t your first language, you can opt to translate text into your preferred language (e.g. Croatian to Dutch, Polish to Greek). The feature supports 88 languages — including Swahili, Hindi, Thai, and Swedish — which can be translated into over 100 languages.

Don’t have a Google Pixel? You can download the Google Translate app and it works very similarly. One special advantage to the app is the Conversation feature. It translates your speech into foreign text, giving you the opportunity to chat face-to-face with a person who doesn't speak your language.

Dining

If you’re at a restaurant and have a hard time deciding what to choose off the menu (especially if you're in a foreign country and can't even read the menu), select the Dining feature in Lens. Google will highlight the most popular menu items at that restaurant, like the mole verde con brocoli rostizado y verduras (green mole with roasted broccoli and vegetables) at Restaurante Casa Oaxaca. When the menu is in a foreign language, Lens will even translate it into your preferred language — so you don't have to go into your meal blind.

Google Lens is available in the Camera app and Google Assistant on Google Pixel phones; for non-Pixel users, the Google Lens app is available on the Google Play Store; and iPhone users can find Lens on the Apple Store.

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