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March 2, 2012

In 1992, IBM introduced Simon, widely considered to be the first smartphone ever on the market. It cost $899 and contained just a calendar, address book, world clock, calculator, note pad and email application. By now, Simon is a dinosaur, a relic confined to another digital age. We’ve moved beyond the surprise of a phone doing more than simply making calls; at a minimum, users expect the features Simon introduced, along with the ability to play music, take photos, record video, browse the web, and download various applications.

With smartphones everywhere by now, we’re waiting for the next step in phone-evolution. The website trendwatching.com, a site dedicated to the latest cultural fads, says that step might just be here, the idea of point-and-know. “The need for instant information and instant access to everything one wants to know is already deeply ingrained in the consumer,” the article states.

“Wondering whether you should take the shortcut through that swath of possibly poison ivy? Your smartphone’s camera is now able to tell you.”

One of the originators of the point-and-know concept is the QR (quick response) code. Many businesses have embraced the small, black-and-white square image as a way to send smartphone users to a web page. A memorial home in Fond Du Lac, Wis. has taken it a step further. Trying to assist the local police force with the county’s only unsolved murder, the home donated a gravestone on behalf of the unidentified victim. The marker features a stamp-sized QR code that, when scanned, directs users to information about the case and how to contact the Sheriff’s Office.

While the QR code was a nice start, it never experienced the wide-spread breakout many predicted. The idea behind it, however, is alive and well within the world of downloadable applications. Have a question about something you see? Simply take a photo and let Google Goggles or Amazon Flow find out everything about your subject. Google’s app lets users search the web based on an image while Amazon’s Flow uses the image to pull information about (and the ability to purchase) books, music, film, and many household products. Niche applications built by lesser-known developers are also arising in the point-and-know era. Wondering whether you should take the shortcut through that swath of ivy on your forest hike? The application Leafsnap provides information about a variety of plant life through user-taken photos of the questionable fauna. Also available for the outdoorsy smartphone user is WeBIRD, an application that recognizes bird calls by using the phone’s microphone and internet connection.

With the way smartphones have developed in the relatively short time they’ve been around, expect more of the point-and-know momentum shift to continue. The world, in terms of how we know it and interact with it, has become a much smaller place.