Today I learned that you can only identify plants and flowers with your iPhone camera

Sometimes, even as a tech reporter, one can be surprised at how quickly technology improves. Case in point: I just found out today that my iPhone has a feature I’ve wanted for a long time – the ability to identify plants and flowers just from a photo.

It’s true that various third-party apps have offered this feature for years, but the last time I tried it, I was disappointed with its speed and accuracy. And yes, there’s Google Lens and Snapchat Scan, but it’s becoming less and less convenient to open an app I wouldn’t otherwise use.

But since the launch of iOS 15 last September, Apple has offered its own version of this visual search feature. It’s called Visual Look Up and it’s damn good.

It works very simply. Just open a photo or screenshot in the Photos app and look for the blue “i” icon underneath it. If it has a small sparkling ring around it, iOS has found something in the photo that it can identify using machine learning. Tap the icon, then tap Lookup and it will attempt to find some useful information.

Tapping the “i” icon usually gives you more information about when you took the photo and your camera settings. However, when the ring sparkles, there is also Visual Look Up data to see.

After clicking the “i” icon, you have the option to look up more information based on a few selected categories.

It works not only for plants and flowers, but also for landmarks, art, pets and “other objects”. It’s not perfect, of course, but it surprised me more often than it disappointed. Here are some more examples just from my camera roll:

Visual Look Up works for landmarks, animals and art, and plants and flowers.
Image: The Edge

Although Apple announced this feature at WWDC last year, it hasn’t exactly touted its availability. (I discovered it via a link in one of my favorite tech newsletters, the excess.) Even the official support page for Visual Look Up gives mixed messages, telling you it’s “US only” in one place and then listing other compatible regions on another page.

Visual lookup is Availability is still limited, but access has expanded since launch. It is now available in English in US, Australia, Canada, UK, Singapore and Indonesia; in French in France; in German in Germany; in Italian in Italy; and in Spanish in Spain, Mexico and the United States.

It’s a great feature, but it also makes me wonder what else visual search could do. For example, imagine snapping a picture of your new houseplant just for Siri to ask, “Should I set reminders for a watering schedule?”—or, if you’re taking a picture of a landmark while on vacation, so Siri searches the web for opening times is looking for and where to buy tickets.

I learned long ago that pinning your hopes on Siri doing something too advanced is foolish. But those are the kinds of features we might get with future AR or VR headsets. Let’s hope that when Apple rolls out this kind of functionality, it gets more attention.