Spectrum visits the Adobe Advanced Technology Labs

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Iâ''m the family archivist, that person who takes the photos, makes the videos, sends prints to the grandparents, digs out the baby or pet pictures whenever theyâ''re needed for a school project, and, in general, is responsible for creating, storing, and organizing our familyâ''s memories.

Iâ''m reasonably successful at the creating end; I usually manage to grab a camera when Iâ''m running out to an event that ought to be commemorated, I pose the kids on birthdays and major holidays.

Iâ''m not so great at the storing and organizing part. The last time I made any serious attempt to organize photos was when I was last on maternity leaveâ''my youngest is now 10. I do regularly download digital images from my camera to my computer, occasionally back them up using an online service. I havenâ''t attempted to label any of these images since 2003, deciding it was way too time consuming. I used to order prints occasionally, but after the unopened boxes started piling up, stopped that as well.

And Iâ''ve been feeling really guilty about it; I know I really need to get my photos under control, but itâ''s just too overwhelming, so I procrastinate, and feel guilty about procrastinating.

But this week, thanks to a few engineers at Adobeâ''s Advanced Technology Lab, Iâ''m no longer feeling guilty. Oh, Iâ''m still procrastinating, but now I have an excuse.

Let me explain.

Tom Malloy, the senior vice president in charge of Advanced Technology for Adobe, invited me to visit him and a few research engineers in San Jose for a private show-and-tell. I had no idea what I might see. Malloy pulled a few projects out of the 80-some in the works and the principal engineers on the projects gave me short demos.

I expected to see interesting technology; I did, but I had a hard time keeping focused on the image processing and artificial intelligence technology that made the demos work because I got so wrapped up in what the software being demonstrated could do, namely, clean up my photo mess. Even better, it gave me an excuse to not spend days dealing with the mess myself; instead, Adobe convinced me I just have to be patient and they will make everything better. (I wondered if they are working on any tools for automating the college application process, another source of family stress these days.)

First, I saw something with the working title â''Massive Mediaâ''; it takes a userâ''s entire photo library, looks at whatever metadata is available, and sorts everything onto a timeline, grouping things by events, helping you tag large groups of photos, and restacking images for better navigation as you zoom in and out. Iâ''ve seen other attempts to stick photos on a timeline, they werenâ''t compelling; this was, mostly because of the speed at which you could navigate around the timeline and within the groups of photos. (Check out the screen shot that opens this post.)

Next up was â''Breeze,â'' a tool that uses facial recognition software to partially automate the process of tagging photos. Since, in my photo collection, Iâ''m usually searching for photos of specific family members, this would simplify my life tremendously. Again, the speed at which a large photo collection could be processed with very few clicks and keystrokes was impressive.

Finally, â''Haystackâ'' deals with pictures that have no metadata; given my first digital camera generated little automatically, thatâ''s about half of my collection. Haystack starts with some basic intelligence about scenery (beach, snow, garden, etc.); you can add more, or simply pick one photo and tell it to â''find more pictures like this.â'' Since as family archivist Iâ''ve taken a lot of shots in which the scene stays the same but the kids grow up (back to school pictures on the front porch, Halloween pictures in front of the fireplace, Christmas photos next to the tree); Iâ''d have a blast creating sequences of images. I did this once by hand (searching for back to school photos to make into a poster) and it took forever; again, Haystack seemed, at least in the demo, blazingly fast.

Inspired, I went home from the Adobe visit and added my summer photos to the 5 gigabytes of images already sitting on my computer, doing so without the usual feeling of tossing my family memories into a black hole. Thanks, Tom.

Original photography copyright 2005-2008 Heather Parker. Used with permission.

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