IOS Photos Image Recognition: Is That a Lion or a Maple Tree?


IOS Photos Image Recognition: Is That a Lion or a Maple Tree?

I’m pretty sure, but just in case

Mountain Lion
Photo by Zach Key on Unsplash

Have you noticed noticed the new image recognition feature in IOS, iPad0S, and macOS? It’s called Visual Look Up; Apple says it can identify “popular art and landmarks around the world, plants and flowers out in nature, books, and breeds of pets.”

I was quite excited when Apple announced this because I’m a curious sort: I like to know what things are called. I had already tried apps that offered this ability; all of them disappointed me. I hoped Apple’s system would be better. It isn’t.

Our mystery tree

I first tried it on a tree in our front yard we have wanted to identify since we moved here in 2005. People have guessed, but no one was sure. After installing IOS 15, I whipped out my iPhone and snapped a not very exciting picture:

As it looks in my Photos app (All Photos by Author)

Those two stars decorating the “Information” icon tells you identification is available. If it’s not decorated , all you can get is the usual camera related meta data.

Once you click the icon, two things change. You get the normal camera stuff, but also a Look Up link and another icon appears in the center of the photo. As far as I can tell, both do the same thing, which is to attempt to identify subject of the photo.

After clicking on “i”

I was told that our tree is of the genus Prunus and is a Quince.

It isn’t. It bears small dark red berries that do not seem to interest the birds. Whatever it is, it’s not a Quince.

Is this helpful?

That was disappointing

That was pretty much what I experienced with every plant I tried. Sometimes the result seemed reasonable, sometimes not. It was not something I’d want to rely on: I would not use it to identify edible mushrooms!

Animals were a mixed bag as well. Photos of cats and dogs were identified as such. Even some odd breeds I found on the web were correctly named. But when I gave it a picture of my daughter’s Finnish Lapphund, it was identified as a Pomeranian! Other pictures of her dog came up as Golden Retrievers.

Lions and tigers and bears were often not identified at all, which was surprising — perhaps the resolution needed to be higher.

If you want to try this with IOS screenshots, you don’t have to save to Photos. Just click on the screenshot after you take it and wait a second or two for that decorated circle. Then you can delete the photo without saving it.

A trip to the supermarket was amusing. Photos identified bananas and broccoli, but not any of the apples, zucchini, or other squashes. In fairness, Apple did say “plants and flowers out in nature”, so perhaps I expected too much. But it failed to identify zucchini and peppers in our garden as well.

So my hopes are dashed

Although the dangers from ticks keep me out of the woods now, when I was younger I spent a good amount of time exploring the old trails in the woods where we lived. I had a few books on plant identification, but they were not very helpful. That made me all the more disappointed with Visual Look Up. My childhood dream of learning the names of wild plants can’t quite be done just yet.


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