Photo Album 2015: Breaking the Boundaries

Today, more than 75 percent of people on our planet have mobile phones with cameras, and we use them frequently; in 2014 alone, we took an estimated one trillion photographs. At any important place or event, people are using their mobile phones to capture the moment. As Om Malik recently noted in two key articles—“On visual web, a photo is worth more than a 1000 words” and “Standalone Camera Shot (Dead) by iPhone”—a major disruption is now taking place both in how photographs are captured and in the role they play in modern society. We’re taking many more photos to share and save our life moments, and this trend is likely to continue its rapid growth over the next few years.

This fact raises many provocative questions:
• What happens to all these photos that we capture?
• Are they simply ephemerals, as companies like Snapchat would have us believe?
• Where are we storing them?
• How are we using them?
• How can all these moments be harnessed for the valuable knowledge they contain?

Mobile digital photography raises many more questions as well, including: What is the future of photo albums?

Soft Albums Emerge

In his book, Photographic Memory, Verna P. Curtis states that photo albums are “made for preserving impressions and launching memories.” An album thus has two important elements: collection and presentation.

“Hard copy” photos of days past resulted in relatively static collections of photos. Once we created an album, it was used and distributed as a physical object. Typically, such albums contained relevant photos presented in a specific order. This was a successful model for albums, scrapbooks, and even traditional books.

The digital age is now disrupting that collection model. Digital photography—and mobile digital photography in particular—is breaking the boundaries of the traditional album and revolutionizing it to make it more relevant to modern photography and social habits.

Most mobile phones have a place to save all the photos we capture. Commonly called a “Gallery” or “Camera Roll,” these archives are almost always a chronological collection of photos. However, mobile phones’ improved processing power, combined with GPS and a clock, have somewhat modified this.

Although still chronological, smartphones have begun arranging collections based on dates but labeling them as “events.” Sometimes they organize photos taken over a period of time in a day when they were taken. Some systems even let users arrange photos based on location.

In the cloud, such features are further refined; some systems can use face recognition technology to group photos. Further, as concept-detection techniques progress—perhaps powered by deep learning—we might soon be able to identify objects in photos.

For now, we have “soft photos” with associated data that make it possible for us to create albums based on dates, places, and people. The following figures (from an iPhone and an Android, respectively) show example photo organization schemes.

Figure 1. Photographs on an iPhone organized by date (left) and location (right).

Figure 2. Photographs on an Android organized by photo source (left) and by chronology for those taken using the phone’s camera (right).

Toward a Photo Web

In his 1945 Atlantic Weekly article, “As We May Think,” Vannevar Bush described how our memory works on context-dependent associations or connections. Enjoying and revisiting old photos can create these memory trails: looking at one photo can evoke a thought that leads to another photo, which in turn leads to other photos, and so on. This process is typically triggered by some prominent attribute in a photo, which leads us to another photo with perhaps another kind of attribute that leads us further still.

So, for example, I might be looking at a group photo that includes my friend John, which reminds me of the trip John and I took to Singapore; a photo from that Singapore trip might then remind of a wedding I attended; a photo from that wedding might feature a particular style of clothing that evokes my memory of another photo; and so on.
In contrast to how our memories work, current camera rolls and albums create static collections, typically based on chronology or some other attribute. Such collections are like the organization of files in folders: each photo is a file that can be placed in a folder, which you can then browse through (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Static photo collections organized by a single attribute (such as chronology) are similar to file folders.

In his 1990 book, Weaving the Web, Tim Berners-Lee thought about connecting all documents: Suppose all the information stored on computers everywhere were linked. Suppose I could program my computer to create a space in which anything could be linked to anything.

Berners-Lee’s thought changed our world. He developed the World Wide Web to connect all documents based on his dream; in turn, the Web changed how we look at data, information, and knowledge.

Today, we look at a Web of documents rather than mere hierarchical folders of documents. Google’s Gmail, for example, helps us think about email messages in a new way. Where we were once worried about organizing messages into folders, we now have a system in which rapid search tools automatically help us find what we need, eliminating the need for folders. Of course, if you still want to use them, the system will let you.

With the ubiquity of mobile phone cameras, photos themselves are becoming the new documents. It’s now easier to capture photos and videos about a situation than to write a textual statement about it. No wonder the younger generation prefers to share photos and videos rather than text-based messages.

Given this emerging development, it’s natural to ask: Can we create a new system for organizing and connecting photos? Can we say: Suppose all photos and videos were linked to other photos and videos and other types of information sources. Suppose I could create a space in which all visual data were linked and were linked to textual information also…?