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As people communicate with images more each day, a number of technology companies and retailers are exploring ways to tap this visual language for search. The Firefly app in Amazon.com's new smartphone has made the highest-profile dive into visual search—search prompted by image-based queries—but it's not alone.
Although effective general visual search remains elusive, Google, Facebook and others continue to invest heavily in image recognition, as explored in a new eMarketer report, “Visual Search & Recognition: On the Cusp of a New Era in Retail.” Amazon will continue to develop Firefly, while a host of smaller firms rapidly improve their visual search technologies. The future of visual search is more a question of when, not if. eMarketer expects visual search to become a mainstream tool for retailers within one or two years.
According to data from BloomReach based on performance on its platform, visual source gives a boost to various retail metrics. But are consumers clamoring for a way to find items based on pictures, instead of words? Retailer interest in visual search reflects their understanding of the changes brought on by mobile shopping.
Millions of Americans use their smartphones while shopping every day. But the current search experience is not ideally suited for mobile. “It's not as easy to type on a mobile phone as it is on the desktop with keyboard layouts being the way they are,” said Brad Folkens, co-founder and CTO of image recognition firm CamFind. "We think there's great opportunity and potential for visual search," said Eddie Baeb, spokesman for Target. "It just makes so much sense. It does take out a potential layer, what many people refer to as kind of a friction point."
The real promise of visual search in retail, however, extends beyond resolving typing issues. "Visual search is not here to replace the keyboard," said Adi Pinhas, founder and CEO of Superfish. "Visual search is for the cases in which I have no words to describe what I see."
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