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7 amazing ways to use your smartphone camera

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 6 days ago Kim Komando

Camera phones become more sophisticated every year, and it’s changing the landscape of photography. Professionals are using their smartphones in place of hefty DSLRs, and indie filmmakers are shooting everything from music videos to feature-length dramas. With advanced features and tons of free editing software, the camera phone may become the lens of the future.

Tip in a Tip: Apple’s camera app is good, but there are better free apps to capture and share your memories.

That little camera is useful for so much more than snapshots and home videos. If you ever dreamed of a scanner, game system, and universal translator that fit into your pocket, these apps have made that vision a reality.

Here are seven amazing things your smartphone can do.

1. Consult a virtual decorator

A few years ago, IKEA developed a wild new feature. Customers could raise their phones or tablets to a room in their house and then plant a piece of furniture in the picture. The 3D image would adjust to the screen’s POV, looking extremely realistic, even though the furniture didn’t yet exist in real life. This “augmented reality” feature helps imagine how an item will look before a customer buys it.

Hot on IKEA’s heels is Amikasa, an iOS app that not only helps you design interior spaces but also inserts imaginary décor in real-life settings. You can also add faucets and cabinets, or even change the wallpaper.

Click here to try the future of interior design now. Not an iOS user? Try Home Design 3D for a similar design experience (minus the augmented reality).

2. Scan documents

Scanning paper documents as PDFs is convenient, but the scanner itself can be a real ordeal. The scanners on traditional printers can be slow and cumbersome to use, and scanning large bundles at a print shop can cost you a pretty penny. But there are apps, such as Genius Scan and Evernote Scannable, that convert hard copies into a digital format using your camera phone. You can scan multiple pages and include them in the same document, a convenience that used to be nigh on the impossible.

Adobe just launched its own stellar app that scans physical documents with your smartphone’s camera and turns them into PDFs. Just point your iPhone or Android’s camera at a document, and the app will automatically scan it for text using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and save it as a PDF file.

Android users have another option. Aside from cloud storage, the Google Drive app has document scanning capabilities.

3. Shop in three dimensions

When you flip through a magazine, some ads are so vivid and colorful that they seem to leap off the page. With the ROAR app, the ads actually do leap off the page, at least in the display of your camera phone. You can quickly scan a photo of a cute sundress, for example, and within seconds your display will show that outfit in three dimensions.

ROAR also lets you take photos of meals and beverages and instantly find out their ingredients. You can scan items in a store and find their costs, then price-gauge with other retailers. Shoppers can be spontaneous and well informed at the same time. If you pass an eye-catching movie poster, you can capture its image and instantly order movie tickets. Give this amazing app a whirl.

4. Translate language

When the Word Lens app hit the market a few years ago, users were astonished by the ability to “read” signs in foreign languages. The app even used the same font and style in its visual translation. This magical technology was later scooped up by Google, which has made it a part of the broader Google translate app.

Other services use the same gimmick, helping you translate menus and signage from wildly different writing systems into your own romanized alphabet, all using your camera phone. But the standard, for now, is still the free Google app. Read more about Google Translate.

5. Learn your wines

Wine is a complicated beverage. There is so much to know about a given year, vintner and vintage. In the past, wine aficionados had to memorize all that information or refer to a book. But now you can learn about a particular label at a glance, thanks to the Vivino app.

Just scan the wine’s label, and you’ll find out everything there is to know, including personalized recommendations. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a bottle that isn’t included: Vivino has a database of more than three million wines. Learn more about Vivino.

6. Augmented reality games

If you weren't living in a submarine last year, you are probably familiar with the global obsession that was Pokémon go. This game sent millions of players running through their neighborhood streets in search of little creatures, guided by the motto, “Gotta catch ‘em all!” This is just the beginning of the phenomenon known as augmented reality games.

These entertainment systems create real time, real world backdrops for the in-game objects. For example, when you play ARBasketball, you can find a virtual hoop anywhere you go, and the Bowmaster inserts targets in your actual physical surroundings.

If you are a fan of the undead, you will probably get your thrills from Zombies Everywhere! This game turns your real world into an apocalyptic zombie battleground. You will never look at your neighborhood sidewalk or office cubicle the same way again. For Android, check out TableZombies for a similar augmented reality game.

7. Security camera

When you upgrade to a new smartphone, you usually have to face a difficult question: What do you do with your older model? Well, one option is to repurpose it as motion activated security camera. The Manything app uses your smartphone camera to monitor your pets, your home, your kids, or whatever else needs a watchful eye.

Manything has programmable motion detection zones, cloud-based DVR, time-lapse and live streaming. All you need is another device with Manything installed (to use it as your remote viewer and controller) and you will have a low-cost, around-the-clock surveillance system. Click here to get the steps on how to set it up.

Bonus: magnifying glass

Curses! You left your eyeglasses in the car, and you don’t want to leave the restaurant. But how will you ever read the menu? No problem: Just turn on your smartphone’s camera and use the viewfinder to zoom in on the tiny text. Think of your phone as a bionic eye that brings everything into focus.

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