Smartphone cameras keep getting better and better, but they can do more than just take beautiful photos. They can turn your smartphone into a translator, product price matcher, a scanner and more. You just need to know how to use it.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema.
Translate Text on the Fly
In the past, you'd look at foreign text and couldn't read it. You'd have to ask for help, look up words in a book, or maybe even type it all into your smartphone for translation. Now you can just point your device's camera at the text and see the translation happen before your eyes.
Word Lens (Android and iOS) is a mind-blowing app that translates any text the camera sees. You have to pay a bit more than the average mobile app for the service, as each language costs an additional $5, but it's pretty amazing if you're roaming around a foreign country and can't read a thing. Point it at any reasonably large text, and that text will be automatically (and almost instantaneously) replaced on your screen.
Make Printed Books and Documents Editable
If you need an excerpt from a book for a research paper, presentation, or whatever else, you don't have to type it into your computer anymore. Your smartphone can do the work for you thanks to optical character recognition (OCR) technology.
OCR helps a computer (in this case, the tiny one in your pocket) recognise alphanumeric characters in an image. Applications then take that data to create editable, searchable text you can use for whatever you like. A lot of OCR apps exists for smartphones, but we have our favourites for Android and iOS. Pick one up, start scanning, and turn printed materials into editable ones at your leisure.
Read Barcodes and Compare Prices While Shopping
You might find a good deal in a brick-and-mortar store, but that doesn't mean you won't get a better one elsewhere. Thanks to your smartphone, you compare one store's price with lots of other stores on the internet. And when a price tag goes missing in the store and you just want to find out how much an item costs, your smartphone can read the barcode to discover that as well.
RedLaser (Android, iOS, Windows Phone) sits high up in the price comparison app options because it scans barcodes and delivers results quickly. Furthermore, if you don't want to order online it can tell you what better deals are close to you. It also costs nothing to use.
As for quick price checking, just download the store's app from your device's app store. Nowadays, most come with barcode scanning (some of which are powered by RedLaser) and can quickly tell you the cost of an item. You can even build a shopping list, wish list or wedding registry this way with some store-specific apps. Alternatively, download MyRegistry to get list-building features without sticking to just one store.
Keep a Record of Important Information
When you take a photograph with your smartphone, you generally snap pictures of people or places you want to remember. Why not do the same for information? While this clever use technically involves taking pictures, you're not sticking them in a scrapbook anywhere. Instead, you're finding ways to create a pocketable photographic memory.
One of the most beneficial things you can do is photograph your emergency information so you can provide it easily if you don't have your cards with you. This includes contact numbers, and insurance cards, for starters. You can just put these in an "EMERGENCY!!" album on your phone. Next, set your phone's lock screen message (Android, iOS) or wallpaper to include something like "in case of emergency, see EMERGENCY!! photo album". This way people will know what to do in such an extreme circumstance.
This can also help in less extreme cases. For example, if you take any prescription medication, photograph the bottles. This not only helps with getting refills, but if you need to provide the exact dosages for several types of medication you can do so easily with a few pictures you took and stored on your smartphone.
In addition to your health, you should consider photographing anything you might need to know when filling out a form (aside from sensitive information you don't want to fall into the wrong hands). For example, your licence plate, the MAC address on networking devices, your dog's ID tag and so on. Every time you enter something into a form and you can safely store it in your phone, take a picture so you don't have to dig up that information next time.
Import Printed Business Cards into Your Smartphone's Contacts
Business cards are cool, but they're a little outdated. Nobody really keeps them around anymore, but rather just enters the information into their smartphone. Whether you get a lot of cards or not, why bother typing them in yourself? Your smartphone's camera can do it for you.
Much like you can use OCR on a book, you can do the same for cards. CamCard takes an image of a business card and transcribes its information for you, then adds it to your contacts. The obvious downside to these apps is that they rely on quality pictures and OCR isn't a 100 per cent perfect technology, but correcting a few minor errors takes a lot less time than typing in someone's contact information from scratch.
Scope Out Nearby Places
Out and about and not sure where to go? Augmented reality can help you out! Just point your camera in a given direction and allow an app to show you what's nearby. If something looks good, just head on over or even get specific directions.
Augmented reality overlays relevant information over what your smartphone camera sees. This is the sort of technology that makes (previously mentioned) live translation possible. Augmented reality can do all sorts of things, but in this case we're going to look at how it can help you find a good place to eat. Most of us, when looking for a nearby restaurant, turn to Yelp. Most of us just search by proximity, but if you head into the More section of Yelp's app and find Monocle, you can just point your camera in any direction and see what's available. Android users can also download Google Goggles for the same effect.
Determine If a Remote Control Needs a Battery Change
Remote controls use infrared (IR) lights, which the human eye can't see. This makes sending a signal to the television, Blu-ray player, or whatever else appear invisible. When the batteries run out, however, it's hard to tell if the remote needs more juice or you have some other problem. You can use your smartphone camera to easily tell the difference. (Note: some smartphones, like the iPhone 5s, filter out infrared light. This appears to be less common with Android cameras.)
All you have to do is point the remote's infrared light at your camera's lens, open any camera app on your phone, and press a button on the remote. If you see a light appear, the remote is functioning normally and you have another problem to solve. If you don't see a light, however, you probably just need new batteries. Obviously you can just replace the batteries and see what happens, but when this happens you probably have your smartphone available and not a pack of AAs just hanging out nearby. It's a small convenience, but a nice one nevertheless.
These are some of our favourite clever uses for smartphone cameras, but they're not the only ones. Check out these reader favourites if you want more ideas.