Tag, you're it! | April 11, 2006

As you’ll no doubt know, tags are essentially user supplied metadata. Tags are useful as a means of data recall, so you can tag your images as SXSWi and then a search on your images using that tag will bring back all the pics you took during the conference. However I find tags much more useful for data discovery, so by searching for the tag SXSWi on everybody’s photos, you’ll be able too see all the pictures taken at the event.

This is great in theory, but in practice tagging can very quickly become a chore. When you have one or two photos you want to tag, it only takes a minute or two to tag them. However when you take a lot of pictures like me, you start to get into scalability issues. If it takes you a minute to tag a photo and you’ve taken sixty photos, you end up spending an hour just adding meta data to your images. Not what you really want to be doing with your spare time.

I want to add descriptive data to my pictures so that other people can find them, but I often find that it’s just not practical, or enjoyable. One of the benefits of technology is its ability to reduce menial and repetitive tasks, but sometimes it has the oppressive effect, enslaving you instead. However I’ve always felt that a technological solution wouldn’t be far away.

When I was younger I remember seeing a science program where a University researcher created a program that could recognize famous landmarks. It used a database of images which it compared with the target picture in order to find a match. At the time it could only pick out a few major landmarks, and only if the picture was taken at exactly the right angle. However I remember thinking that it wouldn’t be long before the database got large enough to cover most major landmarks, and processors got fast enough that landmark or location recognition became common place.

Another thing I’ve been waiting for is geographically aware photography. With GPS receivers getting smaller, they can now be fitted inside a digital camera. Take a picture somewhere and the image can automatically be tagged with the longitude and latitude. Now if you were to combine this with a locations database you would know exactly where each of your photos was taken. Hooked this up with landmark recognition software and you could automatically identify and tag a large number of your pictures.

This may seem like science fiction, but Bath University have already done something pretty similar. You can take a picture of a location using a GSM phone, and because the phone is location aware it scans a database of local pictures and tries to find a match. I can’t wait for this kind of functionality to enter the consumer market.

So that covers location photography, but what about pictures of people? If you look at my SXSW photos, you’ll notice that most of them are pictures of friends and colleagues. It would be great to have these pictures automatic tagged with a location, but it would be even better if they could be tagged with the persons name as well. Well as it turns out, facial recognition software is actually fairly advanced and a recently launched service may have the solution to my tagging problem.

Riya is a photo service similar to flickr that allows you to upload, store and share you images. However it has one fairly major trick up its sleeve in the form of facial recognition software. When you upload your images you can tag them, and overtime the software in the uploader learns what your contacts look like and begins to tag them for you. I’ve not tried the service out yet as predictably it’s in beta, but if it does what it promises, one part of my tagging dilemma may be over sooner than I thought.

[Update:] Just found out that if you’re a Yahoo! US user you can sign up to ZoneTags and automatically geotag any pictures you take on your mobile phone. Cool.

Posted at April 11, 2006 9:24 PM


Jeff Croft said on April 11, 2006 8:55 PM

While the promise of automatic metadata like facial recognition and GPS-enabled phones is just awesome, there’s another way you can (in theory) reduce the time you spend tagging: let other people do it for you.

I don’t do this myself, really, but I have definitely seen photos on Flickr with a single tag like “needstags” or “tagme,” inviting other people to do the dirty work.

It may be a bit idealistic, and I’m not sure how well it actually works in the real world, but i thought it was worth mentioning.

Sohail Mirza said on April 11, 2006 9:30 PM

Andy, I believe Riya has gone live already. You should be able to sign up (although I haven’t done so myself, so I can’t say with 100% certainty).

howie said on April 11, 2006 9:41 PM

Well it looks like both you and Tim Berners-Lee are on the same wavelength! If only he’d known about that Ricoh GPS camera last week. The Guardian ran a story about his recent talk in Oxford where he took a photo of the audience and then commented that:

The camera knows when the picture was taken… However, if I have marked in my calendar the fact that I’m giving a lecture here, and I was smart enough to have some data about the hall that has the GPS coordinates, then if all that data connects, then through the timeline I can join to the event, and from the event I can figure out where I am, therefore I can put geospatial coordinates on this picture.

Or, he could just use Riya!

wible said on April 11, 2006 10:18 PM

You nailed exactly why I don’t do the tagging thing (yet?). I’m such a disorganized person and even thinking about taking an extra step to tag things just kills me. I want the technologies you mention to be fully in place before I jump on board. Yea right ;)

That brings up something I’ve been thinking about, too. Doesn’t Microsoft Vista’s file system (or at least the cool new features) promise to be almost entirely based on meta data? If so - I see a MAJOR data entry headache ahead of me. I’ve got a decade’s worth of junk to tag!

Eddie Sowden said on April 11, 2006 10:29 PM

I think it wont be long before you will have a small GPS (or Galileo for that matter) chip in you camera. This will open a whole can of things you can do.

Having photos ‘tagged’ with times and dates in flickr. The locations being cross matched with a google maps to give you an interactive trip. This then being hooked up with upcoming.org to add details of an event. Then if Riya will let you add some face recognition on to that lot…

The possibilities are endless as to how far you could take it.

Nathan Smith said on April 12, 2006 12:07 AM

Of course, in America with our wire-tapping government, that’d be just another way for Big Brother to track us. :)

I do agree though, that batch-uploading to Flickr is far more of a chore if you’re trying to make things more user-friendly to others. This new technology seems like it will help a lot in the way of making life easier in that regard.

Paul Annett said on April 12, 2006 1:09 AM

I’ll be on the lookout to see what Flickr does next, as I’m sure they’ll have something like this in the pipeline. They’ve recently added an automagically rotate feature which uses orientation infomation from cameras that support it. That’s the first baby steps to increasing the use of automatically gathered metadata. I wonder if it could be improved to rotate photos based on the sky, or the orientation of faces (this wouldn’t always get the orientation of the photo right, but I think it would for the most part).

Faruk AteĊŸ said on April 12, 2006 4:30 AM

For things like tagging SXSW to a ton of photos, the Flickr Export plugin for iPhoto is a great tool, though. Just add your set of tags (sxsw, sxsw2006, sxswinteractive, etc.) and hit “Apple set to all” and then all of your to-be-uploaded pics will have all of those tags set to them.

So for batch operations like that, we already have great tools at our disposal. For the rest, I completely share your sentiments, Andy.

Paul Annett said on April 12, 2006 12:50 PM

Here’s a link to The Great Flickr Tools collection.