Amazing iPhone Tricks

August 2011

One of the most unusual apps for the iPhone is a freebie that takes your pulse. You put your finger over the camera lens on the iPhone, and the app, called Heart Rate–Free, senses the minute change in color of your finger accompanying the ebb and flow of your blood and reports your pulse rate on the screen.

Apple made a brilliant move when they decided to allow the camera to not just be a camera. Instead, they jiggered the device so that any programmer could use the data stream it generates to do an astonishing range of things.

Perhaps the most popular is the bar code reader. You're in a store and wonder if the item you're looking at might be available more cheaply online or at another nearby store. An app such as RedLaser (free) lets you use your camera to take a photo of a barcode and then does an online search to find the lowest price of the product from among thousands of retailers.

RedLaser and similar apps also use GPS so that, for example, if you're in a mall and scan an item, you can find out whether a nearby store has it for a lower price. Shop Savvy (free) also locates promos, coupons, rebates, sales, and more. It puts a blue dot next to the store price to show you that the product is in stock. And it indicates if the store you're in will match the price if another store offers it for less. Shop Savvy even includes a map feature that will help you find nearby stores.

This next trick is just unbelievable: a company called Shoeboxed not only lets you use your camera to take a photo of a business card and add that person to your contacts, but the app automatically uploads it to a service where a human looks at it to make sure that the optical character recognition (OCR) used by the app was accurate. Once it's been tweaked, then the info is automatically downloaded to your phone's contacts. The stunning part is that both the app (called Shoeboxed Business Card Reader) and the service are free. You can also use the app for receipts, invoices, etc.

And speaking of OCR, an app called Prizmo lets you scan printed documents in 16 different languages and turn them into text for editing. Also, eFax, lets you photograph a document and send it as a fax. You need to sign up for their service (starting at $17/month) to send faxes, but you can receive faxes for free (limit of 10 per month).

One of the cooler uses of the camera is "augmented reality." You point your camera at something, see a live image of it on the screen, and the app superimposes information or graphics on the image. It works in two different ways. In most cases, the app uses GPS to identify where you are and know what you're pointing at. But some apps actually use image recognition in order to identify the object.

One of the earliest was the Metro Paris Subway app. To find the nearest subway station you simply hold up your phone. Superimposed over the live image are little information boxes describing what you're looking at. Pan your iPhone around until you see one identifying the metro station and walk towards it. Along the way the app will identify restaurants and other locations of interest. Point your camera at the ground and you'll see an image of the sidewalk with superimposed arrows pointing the direction you need to go.

There many of these augmented reality apps — museums, architecture, stars, and more.

Also popular are translation apps: point your camera at a menu or street sign in a foreign language, and the app translates what's there. These include the free Google Search app (which uses the Google Goggles feature) and can translate six languages. Other paid apps can do 15 languages and more. (These apps usually only let you translate a small amount of text because you need to take a close-up picture.)

If you're color blind, there's an app for that. HueView (free) lets you take a picture and then identifies the colors that are present when you touch an area on the photo. The Eye Glasses app ($2.99) lets you use your iPhone as a handy substitute for reading glasses. And if you need a hand mirror, there are a ton of apps that use the front-facing camera to put your image on the screen.

No iPhone? Many of these are also available for other smartphones.

This month's hot tips:

Google+ is Google's new Facebook-like offering. You can now search the web by using an image instead of keywords.

© 2011 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen