Sure, your smartphone’s camera can be used for photos and video chats, but it can do much more than that. Your phone’s camera is a powerful tool you can use for everything from finding better prices to navigation and translation.

Your smartphone’s camera is a full-fledged input device that makes all sorts of creative apps possible. The apps mentioned below are just examples — there are a variety of different apps that do all of these things.

Look At Products in Person and Buy Them Online

There are a lot of good reasons to look at products in-person before buying them, but online shopping can be much cheaper. If you’re in a store, you can use an app on your smartphone to scan a product’s barcode, instantly looking it up.

Amazon offers one such app — scan a barcode with the Price Check by Amazon app and you’ll be able to quickly locate the product on Amazon and purchase it online if it’s cheaper. If you’re at a store that price-matches Amazon or other retailers, this can even help you save money while buying the product in-store.

Translate Foreign Language Text

Have you ever been in a foreign country and needed to translate some printed text? These days, that probably involves typing the foreign-language text into your smartphone or laptop and using something like Google Translate to translate it for you.

However, there’s a better way — if you’re using Google Translate, you can use the camera function to snap a picture of the text. Google Translate can use optical character recognition (OCR) to automatically interpret the text and translate it for you. it’s not perfect, but it can work surprisingly well and is faster than typing in words you don’t recognize.

Augmented Reality Tricks

“Augmented reality” is a new buzzword, but a fairly simple concept. With an augmented reality app, your smartphone captures a live picture from its camera and uses its software to interpret the image and modify it. Most augmented reality apps show you a live video from your camera, overlaying the image of reality with things that aren’t actually there.

For example, IKEA’s Catalog app now allows you to use augmented reality to picture how a piece of Ikea furniture would look in your home, although you need the paper catalog to do this properly.

Pinpoint Nearby Locations

These apps can also be used to pinpoint nearby locations. For example, the Monocle feature in Yelp’s app can display markers for nearby businesses via augmented reality, pointing the direction to them and showing you exactly where they are without any need for a map. Other apps like Wikitude and Layar function similarly.

Augmented reality apps have struggled to find real-world use cases, although they do make all sorts of cool things possible.

Visual Search

Many search apps allow you to snap a photo from your camera and use it to perform a search. For example, if you snapped a photo of a product, you would see information about the product. If you snapped a photo of a tourist attraction, you’d see information about the attraction. These visual search apps generally aren’t the most useful ways to search, but they’re an interesting application of technology and may be more useful in the future. On Android, Google Goggles offers an official Google visual search experience.

Scan and OCR Documents

You can use your smartphone’s camera as a scanner for receipts and other documents you come across. If you use the correct apps, you won’t just be taking photos — the apps will perform OCR to analyze the text and convert it into a searchable PDF. You won’t get the same image quality you would with a flatbed scanner, but this is a much faster, on-the-go way to scan documents.

Scan QR Codes

Smartphone cameras can also be used to scan the QR codes you see all over the place, from business windows and flyers to advertisements on the street. QR codes generally aren’t particularly useful, but they’re certainly widespread. Most QR codes simply take you to an associated website.

There are other, more clever ways to use QR codes. For example, the Google Authenticator app uses QR codes to quickly input your credentials, while AirDroid uses QR codes to quickly authenticate with your phone without entering a password — just scan the code on your screen with the phone and you’re good to go.

Build a Security Camera

If you have an old Android phone lying around, we’ve shown you how to turn it into a networked security camera.  It’s a cheap, customizable, and do-it-yourself geeky solution. Phones can be even more customizable than traditional Wi-Fi cameras when it comes to the software.

Smartphones are just pocket-size computers, so it’s no surprise that they can do way more with a camera than traditional digital cameras or feature phones. It’s the software that makes this all possible.

Image Credit: Pinky on Flickr, WIKITUDE on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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