Thursday, June 29, 2006

Flickr as “Eyes of the World”

The Elephant's guides
Originally uploaded by Phil Gyford.

Stewart has referred to Flickr as the "Eyes of the World"... This is a totally apropos vision, but also a not so veiled reference to Stewart's hippie roots.

While I was a grad student, colleagues Ted Adelson and John Wang created something they called a plenoptic camera. The basic insight was to use a lens array, a flexibile piece of plastic that had dozens of micro-lenses etched into it, yielding an effect much like an insect's compound eye. Each lens imaged the scence from a slightly different point of view. This camera was able to derive shape, i.e. depth, from analyzing the resultant image. Think stereo parallax but in 2 dimensions and with many more samples. Also, since the "baseline" of nearby lenses was so short there was no course "feature matching" needed.

That's the insight as I recall it, and hopefully someone closer to the research can correct any errors I've made. I see that folks at Stanford have continued and extended the research.

In addition to the practical applications of this work (as demonstrated by the Stanford team the ability to change depth of field effects in a photograph after the fact), I remember hearing Ted Adelson talk about how they came up with the name "plenoptic" for the research. Plen from the latin plenus meaning "full", and optic from the Greek optikos relating to vision or "eye". The idea was that while a normal camera captured the scene only as rendered at one point in space-time, the plenoptic camera captured a "fuller" representation. (Actually if you think about it, space-time is completely packed with potential vantage points. While fuller than a normal camera, the "plenoptic camera" is still just imaging a few dozen points out of the innumerable possible ones!)

So what does this have to do with Flickr?

When I was visiting London recently, a colleague there told me a neat story. The "Sultan's Elephant" visited the streets of downtown London and shut down traffic for days. A Yahoo took his kids to see it, and he tried in vain to get a picture of the kids in front of the elephant. Unfortunately,because of the crowds, he couldn't get back far enough to get a decent perspective. From 10 feet away, it didn't look like "The kids in front of the Sultan's Elephant" but rather "The kids in front of some brown plywood."

Bummed, he went to Flickr to upload and tag the photos. While doing so, he discovered that by happenstance another Flickr user had taken the perfect shot of his kids and the elephant. This person must have been another 20 feet back in the crowd. How cool is that?! I thought this was a nice "eyes of the world" (and plenoptic camera) story.

(I will try to contact the parties involved and link to the actual photos in question.)

Relating back to the previous post, I recall soon after Flickr joined Yahoo asking Heather if there was a way I could solicit more photos of Westbeth. (A building in NYC I'm fond of...) She said, "Sure! I can make that happen for you!" But Heather, being the community manager of Flickr, had the means to rally the troops toward any cause... But I said, "No. I'm not interested in how you would do it... I'm interested in how one would do it..." And she suggested finding a relevant group (in this case maybe this one) and just sending up a "Would someone go take a picture of Westbeth for me?" flare.

(By the way, I never did this. 15 months ago, there was a single photo of Westbeth. You can see I lamely called to the photographer herself "More pictures of Westbeth please!" Now, there are dozens of photos... including exactly the shots of the courtyard I wanted like this one and this one. I did my part and contributed a few...

Heather's suggestion, leveraging the community to help "invoke" pictures is quite effective within Flickr. In fact, many of the group photo pools are calls to action to create "knowledge" on demand. In this respect, it's a lot like Yahoo! Answers... but instead of "knowledge" being a textual response to an explicit query, "knowledge" now becomes pixels...

By the way, if anyone has a line on how to get a flexible lens array like the one referenced above, please let me know! Turns out these are hard to come by, unless I want to have them manufactured by the gross.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Searching for what doesn’t exist…

As an industry, we've made a ton of progress in search over the last several years. Yet there is a subtle but profound limitation to "web search" as currently realized: search engines can only return results that... well... you know... exist.

At a glance this doesn't seem to be much of a hindrance. It's obvious, expected, rational. I've heard (a most excellent and engaging) schpiel from Google (Craig Silverstein) that acknowledges that their current search index captures only a fraction of the information that's "out there." The punchline of Craig's talk was that they'd only indexed a tiny fraction of what's possible - hence the efforts to digitize, crawl the "dark web", extend to other media types, etc. The spirit of the talk was indeed inspirational, in the vein of "we're just getting started..."

But the very comment that we're only x% "done" implies that there is some finite body of knowledge out there, and if we could only digitize faster, crawl harder, buy more servers, etc. then we'd be able to improve that percentage and ultimately get "all" that information into the index (and presumably sleep well at night again.)

Noble as this goal may be, if you pause to think about it, it's obvious (to me anyway) that humankind's "potential knowledge" is greater than our "realized knowledge" to date. This is admittedly "cosmic" or metaphysical, but I mean this in a practical sense as well. Barring apocalyptic scenarios, there are more web pages yet to be written than have already been written. (For the sake of discussion, let's use "web page" as proxy for discrete knowledge element while confessing that we've already moved beyond the "page" as a paradigm.)

Where am I going with this? Perhaps not surprisingly, Yahoo! Answers.

Some of the magic of Yahoo! Answers is revealed through examining its provenance. The category of knowledge search sprang up in Korea. In Korea exists what is arguably the world's most sophisticated online population... but they are disadvantaged by the lack of Korean language documents (relative to English language.) Didn't matter how hard we crawled, how much attention we put on ranking and relevance, etc. If the document itself did not exist, then web search wasn't going to find it, rank it, present it, etc.

Y! Answers turns the current search paradigm on its head. Rather than the current industry search paradigm (connecting the average 2.4 keywords to some extant "web page" out there), Y! Answers attempts to distill knowledge out of the very ether... Actually, "ether" is rather inappropriate term as Y! Answers attempts to distill knowledge from a very real asset: Yahoo!'s pool of half a billion monthly users. It turns this audience into the world's most liquid knowledge marketplace.

(This also reminds me a bit PubSub's schpiel about "prospective" vs. "retrospective" search. The premise here is that PubSub could "search the future." What's different about Y! Answers is that PubSub had a relatively passive relationship to the knowledge itself: "We'll tell you when..." Y! Answers actually has the reach, platform and mechanism to invoke the knowledge versus passively monitoring it. Moreover it evokes it in a "lazy migration", generating knowledge precisely in response to demand for that knowledge.)

It's fun and illuminating to think about all of the knowledge that doesn't yet exist on a web page. Trust me, there's lots. One obvious category is what might be referred to as "colloquial" knowledge, i.e. the shortcut to my house that the online mapping services always seem to get wrong. Or "Where's a good place to get authentic matzah ball soup in Times Sq. at noon where I won't have to wait in line?" The kind of stuff my mother and father know from a collective 142 years on the planet... but alas, they've never authored a web page (let alone written a book, made a movie, etc.) so the only beneficiaries of their wisdom to date have been their immediate friends and family. (Tom Coates will rap my knuckles for invoking the dreaded "parents as naive users" meme...)

Yahoo! Answers serves many, many more purposes than just colloquial knowledge however. It's fascinating to spend time in there... it's an incredibly revealing lens into the multitude of categories underserved by web search today. While the original motivation for knowledge search might be attributed to "lack of Korean language documents," the success of the product worldwide indicates that this was just the tip of the iceberg... there is something more substantial, subtle, and universal going on: knowledge yet to exist > knowledge that exists. I find something incredibly uplifting and optimistic about this.

And with a push of the "Publish" button, yet another web page springs into existence. This one unasked for, but hopefully useful all the same.

Tempted to title this post, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for..." but reconsidered...

Friday, June 23, 2006

CNBC Asia Squawkbox

Just got back from Singapore for this, and did a 4m piece on CNBC Asia's Squawkbox. I don't believe there's a public copy, but Yahoo's can find the clip on backyard.


Took everything I had to pull myself together past the jetlag and mental fogginess for the 4m piece.

Hope to post more about the trip, specifically what I discovered during those sleepness nights channel surfing - i.e. my new favorite TV show "I Shouldn't be Alive" (Discovery Channel) and other faves from the National Geographic Channel.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

My New Job!

I've been very eager to publicly announce this. There were some pretty good excuses as to why this has taken me more than a month. I've been wicked busy, and moreover there were some org changes I wanted to implement before announcing. Drumroll...

I've got a new job at Yahoo!: VP of Product Strategy, reporting to CPO Ash Patel.

This is something that I couldn't be happier about. In addition to the groups I've helped build and will be bringing over from Search, I've also inherited a number of very exciting, impactful groups. The Product Strategy Group now includes:

  • Yahoo! Developer Network - led by Chad Dickerson

  • Technology Development Group - led by Caterina Fake

  • Advanced Products Group - led by Scott Gatz

  • Yahoo Research Berkeley - led by Ellen Salisbury

  • Product Practices Group - led by Irene Au

  • Y! Agile Process Group - led by Gabby Benefield

  • I'm going to take some time and try to do a blog post about each of these groups. Each one is exciting and represents huge opportunity to effect change within or outside of the company.

    I don't wanna get mushy here, but this is an appropriate time for me to pause and offer my thanks to those who have made my experience at Yahoo to date so rewarding. Specifically those in Search who encouraged me and helped me "invent" this role and group: Jeff Weiner, Eckart Walther, Qi Lu, Andrew Braccia, and Tim Cadogan. A special thanks to Prabhakar Raghavan, Marc Davis, Joe Siino and Usama Fayyad for our collaboration around Yahoo Research Berkeley. Thanks to Toni Schneider and Jeffrey McManus for the incredible work getting YDN off the ground. Thanks to Ash Patel for recognizing that what we incubated in Search could, and should, graduate to Yahoo!, Inc. Quick shout outs to Toby, Jerry, Dan, Sue, Terry, Zod, Kwok, Kathryn, Jennifer, Tim R, Ken N, Joff, Tomi, Ken H, Raymie, Stewart, Thrall, Ramesh, Karnes, Ethan, Volk, Kaigene, Hyrkin, Mandelbrot, etc., etc., etc. Apologies to the many, many I've neglected...

    You'll note that I've deliberately not mentioned any of my team, because they're gonna get special love in upcoming posts.

    I'm actually speaking at Supernova tomorrow and am going to share a bit about "Innovation at Yahoo!" There is something very special happening at Yahoo! of late, and it honestly feels like we're just getting started. I'm privileged to be a part of it. Can't wait to share more with you all.

    Wednesday, June 7, 2006

    Back from London

    I was just in London for the Content 2.0 conference. I really enjoyed it, especially Marc Canter's opening keynote. (Went out to dinner with Marc too.) Managed to grab dinner the previous night with the TechDev UK gang (Tom, Simon and Paul), and check in on some fantastic work they've been doing. Can't wait until it sees the light of day. I’m very happy to say that Paul Hammond has jumped right in and is contributing hugely after only 5 weeks. Very cool.

    In Heathrow on the way back home, bumped into a distant acquaintance, movie director Alfonso Cuaron. Alfonso directed Y Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. He is a mad genius to be sure. While we were waiting to board the plane his wife called and said he'd forgotten his wallet at home - again. He had literally $20 in his pocket (and was flying to the States for a few days.) He said it happens all the time, and no he didn't need to borrow any money as they'll take care of him on the other side.