Online auction house eBay has introduced a new version of its eBay Motors app for the iPhone. This latest version (1.4) offers up two cool advantages over its predecessor. First, you can watch live races on it, so if you’re into racing, have at it.
But it was the second feature that really caught our eye. By simply snapping a photo of the back end of a car, the eBay app can then find similar cars for sale near you on its site. It sounded cool, and we were eager to try it out. So we headed to the App Store, downloaded it onto an iPhone 4S, and headed to the parking lot.
The idea behind the app is that you’ll be out and about, see a car you like, and quickly snap a photo to find out how much they’re selling for.The app allows you to search for cars by entering the year, make and model you’re interested in, and that works fine. If you decide to use the camera function, a template appears in the camera window with a rough, generic car outline. Align the car you’re interested in with the outline, and snap your photo. The app then analyzes the photo, and in theory at least, returns local vehicles of the same make and model; note that the photo isn’t saved on your phone, so there are no memory-hog issues to worry about.
In practice though, it wasn’t quite so simple. The app frequently misjudged. For example, it couldn’t figure out what the car above was (it’s a 2003 Infiniti G35), and either gave up or thought it was a mid-’00s Toyota Camry. Other times, it simply sat there “Analyzing” the photo, essentially hanging without providing any information. To its credit though, it did work on other vehicles. It got a 2001 Honda Accord right on the money, and the same went for a Kia Spectra, Toyota Prius and a couple of other cars; we give it about a 60-percent accuracy rate in our unscientific test. However, the time it took to take the photo—if it’s not aligned precisely with the marks on the screen it won’t work—and wait for it to analyze varied from a few seconds to a minute or more, and this was with a strong WiFi connection. We couldn’t get it to work at all on the iPhone’s 3G connection.
But that’s just programming, and surely eBay will refine its software to be more responsive and accurate. However, it can’t solve the other problem we had with the app: Squatting behind a car and taking an exacting photo of its rear end is more likely to elicit a, “HEY! GET THE &@*# AWAY FROM MY CAR!” than a p0lite conversation about the wonders of modern cloud computing and image recognition technology. We were asked several times what we were doing, and this was in our own office parking lot with colleagues. In a mall or other lot with strangers, the conversations may not be quite so polite; use at your own risk.
So color us mixed on this one. It’s an interesting idea, to be sure, but it definitely needs some refinement on the part of eBay. If our brief excursion is any indication, it also needs a bit of courage on the part of the user as well.