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Amazon Flow Lets You Buy Items by Just Pointing Your iPhone at Them

In 2010, Amazon added a bar-code scanner to its mobile app, making it easy to cross-check the price of an item while shopping in a physical store. Retailers cried foul: They said Amazon, which had already done irreparable damage to retail, had once again pulled the carpet out from under the industry.

Now the online giant is taking things to the next level, introducing Flow, a new addition to its iPhone shopping app that essentially lets you buy a product by pointing your phone at it. No bar code is required. The app uses your phone’s camera to collect information on a product — things like its color, general appearance and label text, matching that data against its massive product database.

If you’ve got Amazon’s shopping app installed on your iOS device, fire it up right now. The update is probably there already. Just click on Search, and you should see Flow front and center, just below the aforementioned Scan it option. Be forewarned, however, that it’s still got a ways to go before it’ll become a major part of the shopping experience for most of us.

It’s fun at first, certainly. It’s just neat to watch the technology work. Hold your phone up to an object and watch as the app designates key points of its image with sparking blue dots. This means the feature is hard at work. And you really feel for it as it chugs along, offering frequent, earnest updates like “We haven’t found anything yet” and suggestions like “Try pointing your camera at something flat like a book, DVD, video game or barcode.”

In spite of those notifications, the app just keeps on chugging away, attempting to identify the product, pluckily self-assured that it will figure out what it’s looking at eventually. Finally, however, it’ll pause so it doesn’t keep sucking your battery down — all that hard work does noticeably impact battery life.

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When it does recognize a product, however, it feels like a genuine victory for the app, you, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. After it sees something it knows, the object gets added to a History list. Clicking that item will bring you to the product page, where you can buy it for real.

I sit directly across from the office kitchen (nothing but good things to say about the Yahoo snack selection, by the way), so my first scans were food-based. Apologies for writing this immediately before lunch, incidentally. A quick rundown of my win-loss record with the app in the kitchen:

Sun-Maid Raisins box: Object identified.

Colavita Olive Oil bottle: Nope.

Peanut Butter and Dark Chocolate KIND bar: Nuh-uh.

Chocolate Peanut Crunch Clif Bar: Object identified. Eventually. But it got the flavor wrong. I will say that the white chocolate version sounds pretty good. Might have to try that one later. 

Rice Dream carton, original flavor: Nah.

Cholula Hot Sauce: Nada.

Mighty Leaf Organic Spring Jasmine Tea: Yep!

Smartwater bottle: No, sir.

So three for eight on food items.

Then I tried books. Ten out of 10 here, even, in two cases, where the covers were partially obscured. And it was fast. Bookstore owners had better watch out.

There seem to be a lot of factors at play here. For starters, identifiable text seems to be a must if the app is going to work. Also, for oddly shaped items (food packages), it’s pretty sensitive to visual background noise, so try to find a neutral backdrop. 

The feature has promise for sure, but it’ll be a while before it replaces older methods of online shopping for most people. The idea here is instant gratification, so the app needs to be that much easier than typing a product’s name into the search bar. Because, let’s face it, if you can clearly read the text on a product’s wrapper, then you’re probably smart enough to figure out how to buy it.

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