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Thoughts in full Color

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

There has been a lot of press about Color in the last few days. For those of you who’ve been living in a cave somewhere, Color is a new start-up that raised $41 million for product launch and prompted many questions about whether we are in another tech bubble. It’s much more interesting to focus on what makes Color quite so exciting.

Local social context

Color is a mash up between Instagram or Path, and a Foursquare or Gowalla. Color is a photo sharing tool that uses your location context to decide dynamically with whom photos are shared. Color is interested in driving revenues by allowing business owners to advertise Groupon-like local deals using the context of which pictures shared on the premises. A couple of years ago I blogged about said Zcapes (here and  here), a Dutch start-up which used location and other user mobile characteristics to determine context dynamically and associate micro blog posts with each other. Zcapes explained the concept beautifully: “We need small services for people in similar situations”. It used both explicit search and implicit search. For example, users could explicitly subscribe to the objects, things, the situations they valued, but also discover relevant information about their current place or context through their mobile device. It was the focus on implicit search I found so exciting in 2009. Location is the first part of context, but as Color and Zcapes have noted, at some point, the app can use other data which mobile devices can track.

Monetisation by leveraging meaning from images

I also blogged a while ago about Spinvox, a voice transcription service. The service was interesting to me primarily because of the monetisation focus on implicit search. I gave the example at the time of getting a voicemail from a friend suggesting you meet up for dinner that evening in the city, and Spinvox leveraging its semantic understanding of your speech to make highly relevant suggestions of good businesses, given the context.

Through a combination of both machine learning techniques and crowd sourcing approaches such as Luis van Ahn’s fantastic Games With A Purpose, image labelling and recognition has become possible on a scale unimaginable only a few years ago. Third-party services such as IQ Engines leverage these techniques to deliver accurate image tagging profitably for a few cents per image. Even though location-based social applications such as Foursquare or Gowalla do allow users to add photos there is a real paucity of interesting visual content in these apps. As an example, most images at a coffee shop are of cups of coffee. Yet who knows what kind of visual content would be delivered if users understood that their dynamic context will be used to associate their pictures with each other? This visual language is one element of the potential of Color: to generate rich tapestries weaving images into local social contexts, and then use the semantic labels behind these contexts to drive local monetisation approaches.

Tn the words of Bill Nguyen, Color’s CEO, they are hoping they can pull the same move on Groupon that Google Adwords pulled on Yahoo Panama. It might just work. However, it seems a pity that this interesting mash up of implicit search, image recognition and local social context still has to focus on the incredibly crowded space of consumers going out together. There are a lot of blue sea opportunities to apply these processes and technologies to other verticals and monetisation routes. These would most likely require a tiny fraction of Color’s funding, but be able to deliver real innovation. None the less, Color is absolutely a start-up to watch and play with.

Visual games with the space to discover play

Another interesting visual start-up is Canv.as (let me know if you’d like a beta invite). Canvas, built by 4chan’s founder moot, allows users to play and remix images. Context in canvas is simply an image and its history of mash ups. Nonetheless, the capability of easily remixing, the playful community and the implicit social exchanges that result are hugely addictive. Instagram allows a variety of lenses to give different effects to the photos users take. One thing that appears to be missing from Color is a way of customising or remixing existing visual content in a local social space. Perhaps that’s an iteration or two away.

Great start-up services have always allowed their users a certain amount of freedom to use the service in new and unthought-of ways and are able to respond to quickly leverage these. A community of users is the best group to come up with etiquette, convention, and collaboration, unfettered by the wishes or design of the apps makers. Color has already shown itself capable of retreating quickly releasing new changes based on user feedback. But, more importantly, the application has both a huge amount of freedom and some key constraints built in from the get-go. The rather ominous sounding rule of Color “Do not use Color alone” (which reminded me of the three rules for keeping a Mogwai, although hopefully he does not have the same consequences) means that wherever and whenever Color is used it has a social local context. Yet what users might use Color should for in this social local visual context will be fascinating to see. Hopefully, as its name suggests, there will be a spectrum of interesting behaviours. It seems likely given the early adopters and the locations in which these groups are placed, that groups of users will start to customise their collective visual spaces around the social behaviours which they are used to. I would expect certain social game mechanics to emerge, such as collections, points and leaderboards, and implicit social exchanges, such as adding visual comments or making visual jokes. Many of these can already be seen on canv.as, Flickr and Instagram, but sharing around a local social context should accelerate this.

 

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