Forget goofy video filters -- Alphabet's (GOOG 0.10%) (GOOGL -0.02%) Google is skipping all that in favor of a more functional approach.

Snap's meteoric rise in popularity has been driven largely by its live video filters, or Lenses, that overlay various types of visual effects in real time. These are but one of many features that larger rival Facebook has replicated, recently launching a Camera Effects Platform as its big push into augmented reality (AR) that will complement its concurrent efforts to expand virtual reality (VR). Heck, even Apple (AAPL 0.06%) is getting in on the fun with its recent Clips app.

It goes without saying that live video filters only appeal to a modest subset of users, while AR-based search has incredible potential for mainstream functionalities.

Visualization of using an augmented reality application on a smartphone

Image source: Getty Images.

Enter Google Lens

Of all the things that the search giant announced at its I/O developer conference opening keynote this week, Google Lens is easily the most impressive.

Google Lens will leverage its ongoing advances in machine learning and neural nets and be able to identify objects, and then deliver actionable information based on what it sees. Examples include identifying a flower species, looking up restaurant reviews, real-time language translation, and more. The technology will first make its way to Google Photos later this year, and will subsequently be integrated into Google Assistant, as well.

Google Lens identifying text in an image

Google Lens. Image source: Google.

Google Lens is very much the spiritual successor to Google Goggles, which the search giant launched way back in 2010 with mostly the same purpose: using your smartphone camera to search for things. Google discontinued Goggles in 2014 since it wasn't really being used. However, computer vision technology has come a long way since then, as has awareness of AR as a technology and its potential.

This is what the AR market needs

Strategically, it makes a lot more sense to approach AR from a functional standpoint than a recreational one. Using Google Lens as a visual search tool that can provide information to mainstream consumers fits perfectly within Google's broader mission, and that's exactly what the AR market needs right now: a compelling mainstream use case. That's especially true if AR hopes for a shot at becoming the next major computing platform.

For most of the other companies, AR-based video filters are just a starting point for broader AR ambitions. It's not as if Clips helps Apple sell more iPhones, but mainstream AR functions might if included in future iPhones. It should be obvious that Apple has grand plans for AR that will include more functional applications; when we see those plans is another matter altogether.