I want to tell you about a magical future. In this future, whenever you come across a piece of art you know nothing about, all you have to do is aim your phone at it and you’ll get its name, a short blurb, and perhaps even an audio criticism to listen to.
This future actually arrived last year, via Smartify, an augmented reality art-identifier for iOS and Android that’s since been adopted by over 30 museums worldwide. That’s right: Long before we had the current wave of AR apps powered by Apple’s ARKit, Smartify found a foothold in fine art at places like the Royal Academy of Art in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. From oil paintings to marble sculptures, just aim and identify. You don’t even need to hit a button to take a photo.
While the app is free for users, Smartify stays afloat with government grants and memberships from participating museums–and it reserves the right to monetize in-app purchases, run advertisements, or sell its own data to art organizations.
Though it’s been around for a bit, Smartify–which was recently featured on It’s Nice That–is worth returning to today because it’s proof of AR that works, rather than AR as gimmick. It’s essentially quick, visual search, which focuses its lens on extremely specific environments, and an extremely specific topic: art. While nobody really wants to be on their phone at an art museum, it serves as a handy surrogate for squinting at the tiny title cards next to most paintings, especially as those cards are often nothing more than a title, date, and artist name. Smartify just adds useful context to a piece of our confusing real world.
In short, it’s good for a reason that the most successful existing AR apps are good: It’s fast rather than glitzy. The only novelty here is pure information.
Companies like Google are trying to dominate visual-based search, too, though on a much broader scale than Smartify, which raises the question of whether smaller apps like Smartify can survive the competition that’s surely coming in the next five years. But those tea leaves are always hard to read. What’s clear about Smartify is that its core UI conceit–essentially, “look to understand”–is going to be around for a very long time.