Given enough eyeballs: Shazam for birds and trees and flowers?

Do you ever look at a bird or a tree and wonder “I wish I knew more about it”? I’m useless with birds. Probably even more useless with trees. In some ways it is strange: I could close my eyes and name more trees and more birds than many other people, I have an excellent vocabulary in that context. But when it comes to connecting the word with the real thing, my knowledge is poor.

I used to tell myself it was because I grew up in a concrete jungle. But after a few visits to India I realised this wasn’t true, every city I visited had its fair share of trees and birds and plants and flowers and fruit and I didn’t know which was which.

Now, as I grow older, I live in hope. I live in hope that soon I will have the tools to do something about my ignorance. In fact I look forward to a time when I can indulge myself and learn about all the things in nature I know so little about it.

Some time ago I was looking through the iPhone app store and I noticed this:

iBird Explorer. Everything you always wanted to know about birds, sitting there in the palm of your hand.

Well, almost everything. Because tools like iBird can sometimes have what I’ve heard described as the dictionary problem. If you want to know how to spell something, where do you go? The dictionary. And what do you need to know in order to use the dictionary? The spelling of the word. Mmm-hmm. Don’t get my drift? Imagine someone wondering how to spell “diarrhoea”.

So I thought to myself. IBird Explorer is great, it’s a fantastic looking app, and I’ll buy a copy as soon as they have one for Berkshire or Southern England or even the UK. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could merge the functionality of iBird with that of Shazam?

I love Shazam, I’ve enjoyed using it ever since it came out, in the days when all you had to do was call 2580 and point the phone at where the music was playing. As they say on their site:

That’s what I want to be able to do. Identify a tree or a flower simply by pointing a phone at it and tapping “tag”. Identify a bird simply by letting the phone hear its call and tapping “tag”.

It’s going to happen. Sean Park, an erstwhile colleague and a good friend of mine, used to wax lyrical about the “future”, a time when everyone had powerful devices in their hands, devices that could be used to crowdsource information about all kinds of things, starting with the weather and climate. He saw the power of GPS-meets-camera-meets-computer-in-your-hand a long time before it became real. Well, that future is here. Now.

We spend too much time worrying about all the Big Brother things that can happen to us because of the Web. CCTV Nation, that sort of thing.

Have you read the papers recently? Don’t you think we’ve had enough bad news for a while? Don’t you think, perhaps we’ve had a teensy bit too much bad news? Just a teensy bit?

So I’m going to spend time dreaming dreams and seeing visions, of the things that could be, of the things that could be soon.

Like having a Shazam for birds and trees and flowers. When the power of portable computing meets the power of ubiquitous connectivity to do more useful things.

And it’s not just about birds and trees. It’s about cars and planes and dogs and cats and fruit and flowers. Yes, and people too. Which raises all kinds of privacy questions, but we might as well get used to answering them. Because it’s going to happen.

Point. Click. Press “tag”. Get the sound or image analysed. Match the pattern. Get the answer.

[Incidentally, today we can talk about sound or image. Tomorrow we will be able to add smell and texture to that list, as sensors get cleverer.]

As Linus’s Law says, Given Enough Eyeballs All Bugs Are Shallow. It’s not just about code, it’s about information in general. Sensors everywhere, connected to that great database in the sky. Point. Click. Get the answer.

Some of the reasons I look forward to my retirement. To a time when I can learn more about birds and trees and flowers.

14 thoughts on “Given enough eyeballs: Shazam for birds and trees and flowers?”

  1. Actually I think the “dictionary problem” is actually the dictionary benefit. Whenever I look up something in the dictionary I generally read the definition of about four other words that I see in passing. Sometimes I’ll even spend ten or fifteen minutes following chains of totally unrelated words.

    Similarly, I think that if your aim is to learn about birds, then you’ll learn more with iBird Explorer or a bird book then you will ever learn with a “Shazam for birds”. When looking things up you’ll learn lots of unrelated things and expand your knowledge more quickly. Or at least I would; I recognize we all have our preferred ways of learning things.

    “Point. Click. Get the answer.” has it’s place. It’s great when you have an immediate problem at hand and you need the answer to do your job or fix something. But, for me, when learning, the process of finding out the answer is much more interesting than knowing the answer.

  2. Whatthefont is an interesting iPhone app that does this for fonts.

    I wish someone would develop Whatthetree. You can keep the birds – they are just tree squatters. :-)

  3. Shazan for birds or animals would be great. I’d pay for that.

    My dad is a great bird spotter and he suggests doing some volunteering with the National Trust or one of the local woodland management charities as a good way to learn more about local flora & fauna.

  4. James, Mark, Martin, Kerry, thanks for the comments.

    BTW Martin, when I say “point. click. get the answer” I mean I do with with the detail available for me to delve into.

  5. No wish to put a damper on this idea, but Shazam does not really recognise tunes. It just recognises a specific CD track via some nifty digital signal processing. Play a different recording of the same track, and Shazam wouldn’t recognise it.

    Separate from that though, what you envisage will probably come about within the decade just from brute force computing and good old crowd sourcing – “I know thats a birch because the last idiot to stand there pointed his iPhone at exactly the same tree”

  6. I downloaded iBird Yard which was the first iteration of this inventive birding app. What amazed me instantly was not only the ingenuity of having a bird-book in your pocket, but one that took the tool to a much higher utility by adding recordings of the actual bird-calls and user-submitted photos. No more trying to identify a bird by phonetically translated “pweet-pweet-pweet, krrr”.

    In the past several years I’ve bought several paperback bird books in hopes of identifying a bird I knew as a youth in the highlands of West Texas. Nothing rare, but ID’ing the species always alluded me. And the books are always organized in ways that don’t make the task any easier. iBird solves that by way of the search function – search by location, shape, size, habitat, color, bill shape, flight pattern, and several other features. This is much more efficient than any taxonomy of a physical book. With this application you’ll identify the bird before it flies away. Unfortunately the first iteration iBird Yard didn’t have the bird I sought, either.

    When I spotted iBird Explorer was out and had more birds cataloged, I forked out the extra cash for it and am very pleased to have identified the little running plover in the grass as a killdeer. I narrowed the search using the features mentioned and finally positively identified it by the sound. No book will ever do that.

    More importantly, this “bird book” will always be in my front pocket. It will be there at the ready, along with my GPS unit, alarm clock, cooking timer, four twitter clients, Kindle reader, banking app, games galore, music tuning device, recipe book, Bloom generative music machine, chess computer, radio, iPod, four-track recording device, remote control, a copy of Das Urteil (and countless other books), calculator, electronic stylophone, digital leveling device, deck of cards, note pad, shopping list, weather device, tv, movie listing, and thousand of newspapers and books at the ready for downloading. Any time. Any place. All this in my pocket. It’s truly astounding all the devices this one little gadget has replaced in our lives. And the story is just beginning.

    Imagine what f/w 3.0 will bring with the peripherals that will be possible.

    This brings me back to this topic: I was just describing such an iPhone application with a colleague two days ago – thinking about how handy it would be to have an attachable yet slim Mophie-like battery pack with built-in scanning device and maybe front-facing camera. Suggesting how an external scanner could scan leaf-patterns or like the Amazon Remembers app, take pictures of plants and ID them on the spot. How handy would that be in a foreign grocery store or where the labels are simply misplaced on an exotic fruit in the corner market? Better yet, as a frequent back-packer I would love to ID plants on the trail and know quickly whether edible or not, medicinal uses, etc. This would be a great supplement to the bird book.

  7. And this is all about to happen and things we cannot yet imagine. The iPhone most definitely pays for itself, but more importantly it enables a whole new realm of possibilities harnessing pocket sized computing power, p2p connections, new hardware, and the Internet.

  8. @DE Shazam recognises patterns and needs an exact match to return a result. The same is true for a number of other services around, for photographs and fonts. Historically this was the same for fingerprints as well.

    More recently, things have moved on. It’s actually over a decade since we had MongoMusic, for those of you who remember it, which tried to recognise tunes that you sang or whistled, and came back with a Sounds Like.

    Better cameras, more storage capacity, faster processing and easier cloud access all mean that we’re in a better place today. DE, I guess there’s a pedant in you that takes what I say literally.

  9. This is something I’ve been thinking about as well… although my use case was recognition of plants using images.

    I’m currently working the field so maybe some day soon this will float to the top of our R&D pile and get spat out as a labs project.

  10. Like having a Shazam for birds and trees and flowers. When the power of portable computing meets the power of ubiquitous connectivity to do more useful things.

  11. A “Shazam for birds” is now reality. My company, Avelgood Apps, has developed an app called Twigle that does precisely what you are asking i.e. it records several seconds of the bird singing and finds close matches. It is going to be released later on in March 2014 and will be free to download. You can read more about Twigle on our website and also like us on our Facebook page to get updates on Twigle’s launch;


    Gift Gana
    CEO – Avelgood Apps

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