Find photos in a flash

New Kodak technology will know what you are looking for in hunt for old pictures

 

Ben Rand
Staff writer
brand@democratandchronicle.com

 

(May 7, 2006) The next chapter of digital photography as envisioned by Eastman Kodak Co. reads a little like a Ray Bradbury novel or the script of the 2002 movie Minority Report.
 

Kodak and others in the industry believe that in the future, you won’t have to waste time trying to recall details of an old photograph. Your computer will tell you where and when the photo was taken, who was in it, even how old they were at the time.
 

And that, believe it or not, could just be for starters. Researchers across industry and academia are hard at work developing futuristic technologies that could transform digital picture-taking by enabling images to communicate useful information.
 

“The whole strategy for us in pressing the fast-forward button in this new chapter is looking at how we can break the mold of the old system … so that consumers will be inspired to do more,” says Pierre Schaeffer, chief marketing officer for Kodak’s consumer digital photography group.
 

This vision of the future could mean that you would no longer have to search manually for pictures of your children — the PC or other device will do it for you. Need images or videos from your trip to Florida? Pictures from birthday parties through the years? A few clicks of the mouse will produce them.
 

The breakthrough applications could provide a critical boost to Kodak’s plans for digital imaging. By making it easier to find and organize your images, the company believes it will generate new revenue through increased sales of items such as keepsake photo books, unique online photo-sharing services or products not yet imagined.
 

There is some urgency: Kodak last week reported a loss of $298 million during the first quarter, marked by a 10 percent decline in revenue from consumer digital photography.
 

A whole new world

 

Long talked about, but now on the verge of reaching the marketplace, the technologies — showcased to reporters in New York recently — are part of a research area known as “image understanding.” Simply put, image understanding holds that pictures, like words, have no meaning without context — “the who, the what, the where, the when and, in some cases, the which and the whose,” says Patrick Cosgrove, program manager for intelligent content and semantic understanding at Kodak.
 

As envisioned, those questions would be answered by high-level software that analyzes the telltale clues silently captured every time you snap a digital photo.
 

The research is currently focused on three main areas: recognizing people through their faces, identifying objects such as trees or basketballs and analyzing the background. The ultimate goal is not to gather information for information’s sake, Cosgrove says, but to turn “data into knowledge.”
 

He provides an example: In the future, digital cameras may routinely record the latitude and longitude of where the photo was taken through an internal global positioning system. By itself, that information isn’t useful to the average person. But imagine if it could be used to sort pictures taken at a specific place, such as grandma’s house, he said.
 

Kodak is not committing to a specific date when the technology will be widely available. If and when it is, the technology will more than likely not be a stand-alone item — rather, it will be found inside another product, such as a digital camera or a photo kiosk.
 

The company is not alone in pursuing this line of research, as a conference in Rochester will show this week. A dozen scientists from industry and academia will be talking about cutting-edge projects as part of “frontiers in imaging,” at the George Eastman House on Thursday, part of the weeklong International Congress of Imaging Science.
 

Out of the box

 

Some projects, however, are closer to fruition. The company is marketing a new service aimed at creating a digital archive from the box of prints found in virtually every closet.
 

The service, known as Scan the World, is built around a high-speed scanner and organizational software. Kodak is testing the service in Wegmans Food Markets on Latta Road in Greece and Penfield Road in Penfield. Since December, consumers have used the service to scan 75,000 prints.
 

The next generation will likely come with higher-level software that will organize pictures into the decades they were taken, based on analyzing the photo’s size and shape and a scan of its watermark.
 

Scan the World is an illustration of an important change in the photo industry, said Jeff Holdsworth, photo category merchant for Wegmans.
 

In the past, photo counters essentially acted as manufacturers, Holdsworth said. Consumers brought in film, and photo-processors made pictures. In the future, consumers will be in control and will direct the industry on what services to provide, Holdsworth said.
 

“The goal is to try to serve consumers by changing the way they access their images,” Holdsworth said. Wegmans is testing a range of pricing: Scanning up to 40 pictures costs $19.99; at the top, consumers can have Wegmans scan up to 4,000 pictures for $199.99.
 

The bigger picture

 

The initial cost for the scan is only the beginning of the revenue opportunity, says Mitch Goldstone, co-owner of 30 Minute Photos Etc., a photo retailer in Irvine, Calif. Goldstone’s store has been offering Scan the World since November. He says that once the shoeboxes are in digital form, customers are sending them to friends and family, who are then coming in for reprints.
 

He sees it immediately in the store. Goldstone will invite customers to view their images on an in-store kiosk. At first, he says, people go through their images quickly. “But then, they slow down and start to make prints,” he said.
 

Goldstone is looking forward to getting his hands on the newer technologies. The ability “to have the software recognize faces, to have them archived by decade — it’s extraordinary.”
 

And extraordinary to more than just Kodak. Microsoft Corp. and Adobe Systems Inc., as well as major universities such as Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Rochester and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have programs focusing on image understanding.
 

Microsoft, for instance, is promising enhanced photo organization and archiving in connection with the upcoming release of Windows Vista, the next-generation operating system. One of the goals is to make it easier for users to attach information to their images and be able to retrieve it using a range of software programs, said Ed Lee, digital imaging analyst for InfoTrends Research Group Inc. of Boston.
 

The value of the new technologies is far greater than just printed products. There is likely money to be made in helping consumers transmit their images electronically, Lee said.
 

And if pictures are considered “personal content,” there may be opportunity in the cross-section with licensed content — for instance, inserting your portrait into a Boston Red Sox uniform and making a print, Lee said.
 

Taking shape

 

Business opportunities are just being formed, says Andreas Savakis, a former Kodak researcher, now an RIT professor of computer engineering.
 

“As people collect more and more digital images, the business case becomes stronger,” says Savakis, who has collaborated with Kodak on several research projects at RIT.
 

One of the next frontiers may be enabling more of a grassroots exchange of photos, a top industry analyst says.
 

Today, sharing photos online with large groups requires the use of a central repository — a service such as Shutterfly.com or KodakGallery.com. It would be a lot easier to have a system “where you say, ‘I’ll send you my files, you send me yours,'” said Alexis Gerard, publisher and founder of the Future Image Report, a California-based industry researcher.
 

That was exactly the experience of Bob Witeck, chief executive of a Washington, D.C., marketing communications firm. Witeck used Scan the World offered by Goldstone’s store. He sent a box of images to Goldstone and got back a CD that he gave to his sister, who is battling breast cancer.
 

“It’s been a huge home run. We’ve been sending pictures to friends and family we haven’t seen in a long time,” he said.
 

Original article posted on Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, link no longer available.