Point And Shoot And Shop

Posted by

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 (320×240) 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.


  1. One other thing that this app might do is show consumers that their perceptions of price at certain retailers is incorrect. So many times people assume that the big box stores are cheaper, when often independently owned businesses are selling the item for the same or less.
    By extension, that might mean more exclusives for large chains, to eliminate price comparison and matching — much in the way it is impossible to find the exact same mattress in any one bedding store. They are the same models, but branded differently, so that the stores can all offer “price guarantees.” Similarly, you can’t compare prices at Price Clubs because they sell the mega-size box of cereal that does not exist in regular grocery stores.

  2. Best price is interesting, other people’s reviews, more interesting, but how about information like where the product was manufactured (with quick ratings on the environmental and labour standards where the item was produced).

  3. This will change the face of impluse buying, especially for big ticket items. At the press of a phone button you’ll know more than the average store clerk will.
    It’ll make knowledge a harder value proposition for stores and increase commoditisation of shopping services.
    I think it’ll make life harder for producers to sell products that are uncompetitive – the word will spread quickly.

  4. The iPhone is the first platform where we’re seeing the power of aggregated applications – simplified front ends that tie together a whole lot of back-end horsepower – in a mobile, realistically-usable-by-mere-mortals form.
    I fully concur with your perspective on the significance of this app. Beyond this, I think it underscores just how important it is for platform vendors like Apple, RIM, Google et al to facilitate communities of development that can rapidly bring innovations like this to market. The pipeline is all, apparently.
    Against the backdrop of failing conventional media models, innovation like this is incredibly encouraging.

  5. Unintended consequence of apps like these: expect camera phones to be banned from stores, starting possibly with electronics store. Large chains will resist transparency as much as possible.

  6. Thank you for writing this blog and sharing the information on this potentially interesting application.
    I have been working with SCM and
    symbology based industrial, military
    and now consumer tools for over
    20 years, as an engineer and developer.
    While this system works very well for the rapid sorting of eggs and apples.
    (where there are 4 to 12 items requiring rapid differentiation) and not as well for the routing of postal packages (where there are many items and the optical reader costs over a million dollars), it is still 24 to 48 months away in terms of true personal reliable usability.
    Current limitations/weaknesses for general adoption:
    – Application requires web enabled mobile handsets with very high resolution digital cameras. iPhone is only 8% of the market and how many of these are 3G iPhones? m.Barcle.com works on 100% of Web Enabled mobile telephones.
    – Application requires a larger database with searchable objects. Apparently this particular application derives it’s data from 4th Click that owns the data stream and in many
    cases the UPC seem to be being manually entered (from older versions)and are in many cases corrupted (wrong data).
    – Error in Identification: Even with a high resolution camera, within the current searchable data pool, there is a very high level of identification error which studies have shown drastically lower adoption rates among no technical users. This is the same challenge that Toyota found when initially introducing QR to their just in time inventory system and one of the
    compelling (although more expensive)
    rationales behind Microsoft TAG system.
    A survey of over 200 of Barcle’s Silver Surfers (60years old plus), shows that they generally will type in a barcode and find it to be an easy and reliable method to check purchase prices from apparel,electronics, new tires to garden tool. The camera method, which works as well on Barcle for telephones that are Android enabled or have dropped in the required Java script, is more likely to be used by young Barcle users.
    (more accepting of higher degree of difficulty and error).
    A major advantage of a search tool such as m.Barcle.com is that you are entering the upc directly and that way you are sure that it is the right version of the right product and therefore you are sure that you have the correct market price and who has it at that price when asking the store that you are in to match that offer.

Comments are closed.