Your Android phone possesses a little-known superpower: a futuristic system that connects the physical world around you to the digital universe on your device. It’s one of the company’s best-kept secrets. It can also save you a lot of time and effort.
It’s called Google Lens, and it’s been lurking around on Android for years, quietly getting more and more capable. Strangely, Google doesn’t make a big deal about it, and you have to go out of your way to even notice it exists. But once you find it, you’ll feel like you’ve got a magic wand in your pocket.
Google Lens can best be described as a search engine for the real world. It employs artificial intelligence to recognize text and objects within images as well as in a live view from your phone’s camera, and it then allows you to learn about and interact with those elements in a variety of novel ways. While Lens’ ability to identify a flower, look up a book, or provide information about a landmark is impressive, it’s the system’s more mundane-appearing productivity powers that are far more likely to find a place in your day-to-day life.
So grab your nearest Android device, install the Google Lens app if you haven’t already, and prepare to teach your phone some incredible new tricks.
1. Copy Text from the Real World
The ability of Google Lens to grab text from a physical document — a paper, a book, a whiteboard, a suspiciously wordy tattoo on your rumpus, or anything else with writing on it — and then copy that text onto your phone’s clipboard is its most powerful and most frequently used feature. You can then easily copy and paste the text into a Google Doc, a note, an email, a Slack chat, or anywhere else you can think of.
Simply launch the Google Lens app and tap the “Search with your camera” section at the top of the screen. Point your camera at any text around you, then tap your finger on any area of the viewfinder — and you’ll be able to select the exact portion of text you want, just like you would on a website.
All that remains is to select the “Copy text” command from the panel at the bottom of the screen, and every last word will be on your system clipboard, ready to be pasted wherever your thumpy little heart desires.
2. Send Text from the Real World to Your Computer
Let’s be honest: most of us don’t work solely from our Android phones. If you need to get some real-world text onto your computer, Lens can help you with that as well.
Simply repeat the previous steps, but this time look for the “Copy to computer” option in the panel at the bottom of the screen. That option should appear as long as you’re actively signed into Chrome with the same Google account on a computer — any computer, whether Windows, Mac, Linux, or Chrome OS. When you tap it, you’ll be presented with a list of all available destinations.
All you have to do is select the system you want, and the text from the physical document will appear on that computer’s clipboard, ready to be pasted wherever you want. Ctrl-V (or Cmd-V on a Mac) and wham! It will appear in any text field, app, or process that supports pasting.
3. Hear text from the real world read aloud
Perhaps you’ve just received a lengthy memo, a printed-out brief, or a letter from your dear Aunt Sally. Whatever it is, take a break and let Lens read it for you while you’re on the go or between meetings.
Simply point your phone at the paper again, and tap the “Text” option once more. Choose whatever text you want — and this time, look for the “Listen” option in the bottom-of-the-screen panel.
If you press your pinky on that bad boy, the Google Lens app will read the selected text to you in a soothingly pleasant voice. Hello, Google: While we’re at it, how about a bedtime story?
4. Interact with text from an image
In addition to live content, Lens can extract and process text from images, including both actual photos and screenshots.
That latter section opens up some intriguing possibilities. Assume you’ve just received an email containing a tracking number, but the tracking number is some strange text that can’t be copied. (This seems to happen to me far too frequently.) Perhaps you’re looking at a web page or presentation where the text isn’t selectable for some reason.
So, take a screenshot by pressing your phone’s power and volume-down buttons simultaneously, then head over to the Google Lens app. Tap the screenshot on the Lens home screen, then tap “Text” at the bottom of the screen. Then you simply choose the text you want.
You can then copy the text, send it to a computer, or use any of Lens’s other boundary-pushing techniques. In that regard…
5. Search for text from any physical document or image
After selecting text from the Google Lens app, swipe your finger to the left on the row of options in the bottom-of-screen panel — the one with “Copy text,” “Copy to computer,” and so on. You’d never guess it by looking, but there are even more options to the right of those initial options.
One of them is the straightforward but extremely useful “Search.” (And, on occasion, Lens will display related results in that bottom-of-screen panel without requiring any additional searching.) Keep that in mind as a quick way to get text information from any physical document or captured image without having to manually peck in the words.
6. Search for similar visuals
Lens can search the web for other images that match the actual object within your photo or screenshot in addition to searching for text from an image. It’s a fantastic way to find visually similar images or even identify something in a photo, such as a specific phone model or product.
Look for the “Search” option within the main sliding bar of options at the bottom of the Lens interface — which, confusingly, is not the same as the text-oriented “Search” command we just discussed.
7. Create a calendar event
When you see something with a date on it — a flyer, a billboard, an appointment card, or even a physical invitation to your dear Aunt Sally’s weekly canasta game — instead of typing it into your digital calendar, open up the good ol’ Google Lens app.
Aim the camera on your Android phone at the paper, then tap on the date. Lens should provide a “Create calendar event” option near the bottom of its bottom-panel options, and tapping it will send the information directly to your preferred calendar app for you to tweak and save.
Also, keep in mind that all of this will work even if you hold your phone up to capture an image of something on your computer screen. That’s a fantastic way to save time and steps when working across multiple devices.
8. Save someone’s contact information
If you find yourself holding a business card and thinking, “Well, blimey, I sure as hellfire don’t want to type all of this into my contacts app,” first congratulate yourself on your excellent use of blimey — and then sit back and let Lens do the heavy lifting for you.
Open Lens, point the camera of your phone at the card, and tap on the person’s name. The Google Lens app should detect the type of information and prompt you to add a contact.
With one more tap, the job is done.
9. Email, call, text, or navigate to a website
Do you need to save an address or phone number to your phone for a specific action? It could be on a business card, a letter, or even the front door of an unknown business. In any case, simply launch the Google Lens app, point your phone at it, and tap the text. (Alternatively, option B is to take a photo of the information in question and then search for it in the Lens app later.)
When Lens notices it, it will offer to do whatever is most appropriate for the type of information involved. Then, with a single tap, you’ll have the address ready to paste into a new email draft, the phone number ready to dial or text in your dialer or messaging app, or the website pulled up and ready to view in your browser — no time-wasting typing required.
10. Translate text from the real world
If you ever find yourself staring at a sign in another language and wondering what it says, keep in mind that the Google Lens app includes a translation feature. Open the app, point your phone at the text, and tap the word “Translate” along the bottom edge of the screen to find it.
Before you know it, Lens will replace the words on your screen with their English equivalents (or, if English isn’t your cup of tea, with a translation in whatever language you choose) — in real time. It’s almost eerie how quick and effective it is.
11. Act as your on-demand calculator
Give your musty ol’ brain a break the next time you have a numerical challenge in front of your weary peepers and let Lens do some good old-fashioned solvin’ for ya.
Simply open Lens and point your phone at the problem — whether it’s on a whiteboard, a physical piece of paper, or a screen in front of you. Scroll down to the bottom of the Lens viewfinder screen until you see the word “Homework” (and don’t worry: contrary to what the label implies, you don’t have to be an annoyingly young and bushytailed student to use it).
Lens will eagerly do your calculation for you and spit back an answer in the blink of an eye, with everything from basic equations to advanced math, chemistry, physics, and biology. If you don’t, I won’t tell.
12. Scan codes galore
There was a time when Android code-reading apps were all the rage — and plenty of people still have them. But, as long as you have the Google Lens app on your phone, guess what? Nothing else is required.
Simply launch Lens, point your camera at any barcode or QR code, and poof: Lens will offer to show you whatever that code contains faster than you can say “What exactly does QR stand for?”
But hold on, there’s more! If you have one of Google’s Pixel phones, the process is even simpler…
13. Use Lens from Image Search, Photos, and your phone’s camera
All of the tricks we just discussed can be used not only from the Google Lens app, but also from a few other potentially useful places on your phone:
Google Image Search: When viewing an image in images.google.com on your phone’s browser, look for the Lens icon in the upper-right corner. Tapping this will activate Lens and provide you with any relevant information about whatever is displayed.
Photos on Google: When you open an image in Photos, you’ll notice a third icon along the bottom. This is Lens! Tapping it will launch Lens, allowing you to copy text, activate links, and get more information about anything Lens can recognize.
Your digital camera: Lens is accessible from the regular camera app on Pixel phones. Simply open the camera and press and hold your preferred fingie in any location in the viewfinder. That will launch an on-demand Lens search for the item in that area, and the results will appear right away, without the need for app switching or additional searching. (Congratulations on completing my Pixel Academy e-course: You already knew that, along with a slew of other incredible Pixel secrets!)
14. Get to Lens without lifting a finger
Finally, a meta tip: If you need to open the Google Lens app quickly, skip the usual swiping and tapping and instead say: “Hey, Google: Open Google Lens.” Your friendly neighborhood Assistant will gladly oblige as long as you have the Lens app installed.
Being a mobile-tech magician has never been more enjoyable.
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