In a peculiar case of life imitating art imitating life, Pinterest has announced a new recipe-finding feature that makes use of computer vision to tell you about a dish when you point your smartphone camera at it. The company is billing the feature as a way to perform real-time “dish recognition,” which allows Pinterest to then recommend users new recipes to try using similar ingredients.
It sounds an awful lot like SeeFood, the fake “Shazam for food” app from the HBO comedy Silicon Valley. Pinterest, of course, doesn’t use that terminology anywhere, nor does its marketing material even reference the sitcom or its ludicrous parody, which manifested itself as an app that could only tell you whether an object was or was not a hot dog. (HBO even had one of its technical consultants develop a real version of this service and put it out on iOS and Android.)
So perhaps this was just a very ill-timed feature release that ran right up against a parody Pinterest didn’t know existed. When reached for comment regarding SeeFood, a Pinterest representative confirmed to The Verge that the Silicon Valley episode was “separate and completely coincidental,” and linked to a Pinterest tweet containing a tongue-in-cheek reference to the app:
The interesting aspect of this coincidence is that this new feature makes perfect sense for Pinterest. The company launched Lens, its visual search tool, back in February to do exactly this kind of object recognition. At the time, we even compared it to a “Shazam for everyday objects.” It just so happens that food and drink is “the the most searched and tried” category on the entire platform, making it the perfect use case for Lens.
This is all part of a broader artificial intelligence push in the tech industry to apply machine learning techniques to everyday life. By training neural networks on huge mounds of data and translating that into a real-time algorithm, tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are now developing software products that can digest and understand the world, from text to photos to even videos.
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Last week at its I/O developer conference, Google took the wraps off its very own Lens tool, which will let you point your camera at real-world objects and get information cross-sourced from its search engine and even your backlog of photos and videos in the Google Photos app. Facebook is working on pretty much the same thing, and the company announced at its own developer conference last month that it’s trying to transform the smartphone camera into the first ubiquitous augmented reality platform.
So Pinterest is clearly not alone here. It is, however, the only company that inadvertently piggybacked off the notoriety of a fake parody app from a crew of fictitious technologists on television. That doesn’t lessen the importance or the potential success of Pinterest Lens’ new recipe-finding feature. In fact, if it works as designed, it could be super useful. Who doesn’t want a “Shazam for food,” especially when it recognizes more than just a hot dog?
Update 1:14PM ET, 5/23: Clarified that the creator of the real-life SeeFood parody app was an HBO consultant on the show, and not an independent contractor commissioned by the network.