Not just a pretty face in the crowd: The future of Visual Search

I’m fascinated with the potential for visual search a la Google Goggles. It’s one of the newest ways to search and at the forefront of the next generation: it allows you to search from your cell phone by snapping a picture, and returns information about the building, object, business, etc. (true augmented reality). I first used it when passing a historic building, and was curious about it. My friend pulled out his phone, snapped a picture, and voila! – information about what it was, the architect, date and style, etc. So neat that I think I actually squealed.

I’ve since used it again, with various success. It’s definitely still an emerging technology, but over time the database of images and capabilities will improve. Want more info on a product? Take a picture. Need info about a business? Photograph the storefront. Put simply, this thing packs some serious power, and its capabilities stretch far.

I personally think when it does improve (along with voice interactive software) it will become as indispensable to everyday life as cell phones, texting, and search engines have become.

But then I started thinking about eventual convergences, and the inevitable trajectory it will take: integration with facial recognition software and other data points.

Facial recognition software has had a huge influx of cash and interest since 9/11 for security reasons. It’s here, it’s improving, and pretty soon anonymity will be completely obsolete, if it’s not already – at least to the companies who use it to scan airport passengers, law enforcement, and others who have made it a goal.

We live in an era where an overwhelming amount of data exists on each of us, from our social networking connections and comments, to our shopping habits at the supermarket. Cell phone usage, online searches, cookies on sites visited, credit card purchases – all of these create data which builds a picture of who we are.

But currently, these are still siloed. The grocery store isn’t matching your checkout purchases with your Pandora list and identifying friends of yours on Twitter who are most likely to share your taste, then using the data to target them with advertising.

One of these days, though, facial recognition software will be one of the links connecting the dots between who you are with other data points such as your FB profile, and your Pandora list. At that point, if someone wants to know who that cute guy sitting at the next table is all they will have to do is take his picture – and know who he is, what music he likes, his address (courtesy of whitepages.com), books he’s bought (thanks to amazon.com), his house value (zillow.com), online subscriptions, health risks based on his grocery purchases, etc etc. Spokeo.com and a few others are baby steps towards data aggregation – crude, often incorrect, and using identifiers which are imprecise, but it is the next logical step in data mining: analysis crossing across collection points, as opposed to little ponds.

This scenario – inevitable as it is – obviously has many potential pitfalls. It’s great for companies (I’d advise anyone with a talent for numbers to consider a career in data modeling!), but is a mixed bag for consumers. The privacy issues are obvious, but those aside, the personalization that the market increasingly is demanding is impossible without data mining and developing good predictive capabilities. On the one hand people are uncomfortable with their data being gathered (not like this wasn’t always happening — it’s just more extensive now), and on the other, good data mining will ensure that people are targeted with offers and services that are interesting and relevant to them.

It’s a teetering tightrope walk. As a business strategist / consultant, I work with clients to develop strategies to take advantage of all that is legal, effective, and (personally) always try to do so with integrity. As consumers we should be trying to influence privacy legislation, to ensure that this future is one that not only makes our lives easier, but does so safely. The challenge is that data knows no national boundaries, so what effect will legislation be able to have? I don’t have the answer, only want to add to the discussion.

Welcome 2011 – Garbo was on to something: Trends in digital privacy

Happy 2011 to everyone! I’ve been woefully bad at posting blog entries these last few weeks – largely due to preparation for moving across the country – which doesn’t at all mean that I haven’t been noticing trends and connecting dots while taping yet another box.

2010 was a dizzying year on many fronts and I think people are weary on many levels. The economy has consistently stayed slow, wave after wave of corruption has been uncovered, the “war” in the Middle East drags on, and domestic rhetoric increasingly has overtones of a civil war. Panic and fear mongering in the media have added a huge amount of fuel to a fire which was already there, and a natural reaction to all of this is a desire to retrench, to return to comfort. This is about as far from the optimistic forward thinking 1960s as a society can get. People are tired.

One way I think this is being reflected is a trend towards Social Networking fatigue. People left and right seem to have reached their limit of “connecting” and the latest cool thing to be doing is actually cutting back on connections, and being more selective. We’ve taken to social networking with the wide eyed enthusiasm of a child, tasting, testing, and now want to reframe it to suit our own personal needs, which means only interacting with those with whom we share a real connection.

Facebook in particular suffers from being too “mass” and not enough personalization to meet those needs. There is – without extensive paying attention to tweaking – only one way to “connect”; your bff shares the same level of connection as the friend of a friend of a friend who reached out because of one comment you made.

You also kind of know something’s jumped the shark, to use what is no doubt an antiquated phrase, when McDonald’s has a grandmother talking about your Facebook comment and using the phrase “l-o-l-ing” in their radio spot. Junior is going to need a place to talk to their own friends, and Mom and Dad might want to enjoy an off color joke.

Along the same lines, the digital world is increasingly acting like an ancient Greek Hydra: as soon as you reset your FB privacy settings yet again to combat a new default they’ve implemented, another service or problem comes to light. Twitter, for example, on 10/10/2010 agreed with the US government to archive all tweets not deleted within 23 weeks; in other words, everything you’ve ever said – in a heated moment, in reaction, anything, will be permamently stored. For what purpose? Who knows. I can only guess it’s in reaction to some purported anti terrorist BS, where all data is stored so that at some future time if they need some out of context statement to point to it can be dug up.

It’s particularly scary since in social media very few comments are made as stand alones, so taken out of context are sort of like Rorschach tests; the meaning can be twisted to any way necessary.

As a result of all these reasons (and more), I think this is the year when we’ll see a splintering / fragmentation of social networking as a result. Smaller sites that are tailored to the needs of specific groups will spring up and people will use each to fill a different need.

I also think private (closed / high walled) groups will emerge. Along with the rise of “privacy services” – companies who monitor and manage your digital identity. Staying on top of monitoring and actively managing your online persona is extremely time consuming, pretty soon people will be outsourcing it – as they already do with identity protection services like LifeLock etc. If these type of services are not actively looking to move into this space, they should be.

All of this will also lead to the need for cross social networking sites apps; a “Trillian” type of application which will connect multiple social networking services – eliminating the value of each destination url (eg Facebook.com) since these will be a generic supplier of connectivity, while the interface will be the Trillian-type app.

This will also eliminate the barrier to exit for users of FB, which is currently the 800lb gorilla of the social networking sites in the US (not as much in other parts of the world, where Orkut and some others dominate). If it’s invisible to you, the user, which social networking site your friends are using, then loyalty to one or the other won’t be necessary. It will also completely dilute the value of FB. Personally if I were Mark Zuckerberg – man of the year regardless – I’d sell off many, many shares before this inevitability happens.

So, with a nod to Greta, I predict 2011 will be the year of “I vant to be left alone!”