Digital cameras were meant to be the death of printed photographs. Then came smartphones and inexpensive storage on the cloud courtesy of Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. Who wants to print photos anymore when digital platforms are so convenient?
A lot of people it appears. The photo printing market was valued at US$14,769.9 million in 2019 and is expected to reach US$27,335.3 million by 2027.
Why such a resurgence of interest in the printed picture? Firstly, consumers have rediscovered the appeal of analog artifacts compared with their digital equivalents. Most noticeably in the audio industry, where vinyl and even cassette sales have been on the rise since their nadir in the early years of this century.
Cost and convenience also play a role. There are dozens of Apple and Android apps that now make it easy to print directly from your smartphone. Meanwhile, the price of consumer photo printers and ink is also past its peak.
And then there’s the rise of photobooks. Once the preserve of wedding photographers, photobooks are used widely to celebrate and capture memories including birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries. The rise of the creator economy, where individuals can generate income from their own collections also plays a role.
Cost, Convenience, and Control
As a result, the past decade has seen a huge rise in the number of online tools for assembling memories into eye-catching photo spreads. Most platforms are relatively easy to use. But as anyone who’s put together a 60-page album knows, it is still a time-consuming process, from tracking down the photos on multiple storage devices to choosing the best ones and then arranging them on the page.
Step forward artificial intelligence in the form of computer vision. The technology offers a shortcut, by automatically categorizing your photos by content, time, and place. This includes facial recognition that identifies family and friends and software that can even pick out emotions and common objects. A recent demonstration by Google showed how the software picked out travel photos identifying an orange rucksack carried by the subject.
The downside of artificial intelligence is that most of these advanced printing and photo book features are only available via software giants including Google and Facebook.
Of greater concern, these organizations are using stored images to train their machine learning algorithms to refine recommendations to customers. No wonder consumers are anxious when it comes to data privacy and the extent to which software companies are monetizing personal artifacts.
On the Edge of a Computer Vision Revolution
So how do you bypass the processing power of these cloud providers?
Photobook and printing services are increasingly turning to computer vision software that can be deployed securely on their own systems. This model, sometimes called edge computing, means that customer images never leave their servers, sending a powerful message about privacy to customers.
In this scenario, the computer vision software is delivered in the form of an SDK (solution development kit) which includes compressed algorithms that run in the background of the organization’s existing media library or digital asset management tool. Agile start-ups can play important role in the development of these edge solutions.
The software comes pre-loaded with thousands of tags, including abstract concepts such as emotions and actions as well as physical objects. It may also include facial recognition and video classification, as well as aesthetic ranking models which identify the best content in a collection.
Some commercial printing companies have already deployed the software, enabling customers to upload and tag their photos, create collections and then import them into a photo book template. This means that photo service companies can offer similar features to the cloud giants while providing greater transparency regarding the use of artificial intelligence.
Indeed some have gone so far as to publish a ‘customer code’ which lays out in detail how computer vision is used on their websites and the options available to customers when it comes to activating or deactivating these features.
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A final thought. Some of these platforms are offering similar or even higher volumes of free storage compared with Google, Amazon, and DropBox. Add this to the innovation, convenience and privacy of SDK computer vision software, and you’ve got all the ingredients for significant disruption of the online photo marketplace. It’s still early days, but a brave new world for photo service platforms and their customers is rapidly coming into focus.
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