Riya See’s Ya

On Mar 21, 2006 at 8:14 am I received an email from Team Riya letting me know that Riya Beta had finally launched and that I should come play with the site. Having signed up to be part of the beta programs of about 75 unlaunched, over-hyped and VC funded sites I was somewhat intrigued but not overly excited. Riya, billed itself as an online Photosharing site that automatically recognizes the faces or text in your images and tags them for simplified sharing. I signed-up despite the hype because the premise was itself very interesting, the actual product however is even more exciting then the hype suggested.

Like all the new breed of web service applications (Web 2.0 for the buzz word obsessed) Riya has all the Ajax, Javascript, XML goodness that one could hope for. The sign-up process was quick, all it took was an email and password and I was ready to go. Riya requires you to download a java applet in order to put your images on the service. I uploaded a folder with a little over 600 medium quality images from my digital camera and it took roughly an hour and a half. There were very few options in the process other then the privacy settings, which allow you to determine if the images can be shown to the public. Once my images where up on the site I began the process of training Riya to recognize the faces in my pictures. It basically involves Riya selecting what its thinks are faces, and getting it right about 75% of the time. What is it identifying the other 25% of the time you ask? Ears, bookends, table legs almost any random selection of pixels one can imagine.

Once Riya has figured out where the faces are it then asks you to play a series of match the faces games using a picture of a face you have identified for it and then having you match it against a few faces it thinks are close matches. Of all the tedious steps in getting Riya to perform as promised this was by far the most entertaining. Good times was had by all as Riya attempted to learn the difference between a 50 year old white male standing in shadows and a 20 something Indian woman posing on beach. Riya also had some difficulty differentiating between fraternal twins, who to most humans look nothing alike but apparently share some statistically significant characteristics and Riya was a little reluctant to defer to my judgement. Even after several attempts to discourage it, Riya is still prompting me to acknowlwdge that it has “identified new faces”, which of course is the same set of twins I’ve already indicated are NOT the same person.

“ERROR: Due to some internal server problem we are unable to service your request for now

Of course it hasn’t been all peaches and giggles, as one might expect for a product only in its second day of public beta, there have been a few hic-ups. Although I was prepared for a few snafus, my patience started wearing thin when instead of displaying my search results Riya presented an error message after every search. By the end of the day the search was no longer working at all and would return an error everytime I clicked it. I also found the interface, while slick and pretty clean, somewhat confusing. Sure you could argue that I ought to read the instructions or even wade through the site tour, which in the end had to do, but really good design is pretty intuitive and Riya isnt intuitive. Riya also requires about 30 images in order to get really good at recognizing a face but if your like me the only person you have 30 pictures of a your first and possibly second child. I have less then 10 pictures of everyone else and this means that Riya will find it very hard to recognize them and therefore you will have to manually enter their information.

As I played around with the Riya and began tagging images with the names, places and activities of friends acquaintances and random folks who happened into view, I began to get a really creepy feeling. What if someone has pictures of me in some random setting, doing some random act and is now tagging my past (or present) misdeeds to be accessed simply by typing my name in Riya? What if the government decided it wanted images to test against an “anti-potential-future-Terrorist” database and it wanted Riya to Turn over all images on its service? How could I hide anymore? The domestic policy of President Bush aside, Riya does raise some privacy concerns. Should I be tagging images of people with their fiull names? Does that cross a line? With Riya every anonymous face in a crowd could possibly be traced to a name and even an email address because Riya is doing the heavy lifting of matching across image collections.

Despite all its potential for ruining marriages and spoiling the pristine facades of future employees (and employers), Riya has tons of potential, with many cool new privacy eroding features to come. On the horizon are integration with other services such as Flickr, Yahoo, MSN, Friendster, Myspace and others for things like tag management, contact/image matching and location based searches. Overall Riya is an interesting look into the future functionality and integration of web applications, as the ratchet up the level of service offered they also ratchet up the expectations. This impacts all of us building offerings for the online space. When was the last time you thought it was ok for a map not to respond immediately to your actions?

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2 Responses to Riya See’s Ya

  1. Munjal Shah says:

    Thanks for trying out Riya. I appreciate the detailed review. I have one question and one comment: What specific part of the app did you find hard to use … so I can fix it. BTW it doesn’t do global recognition. So it won’t find you in another person’s photos unless they already know you are (they train or have you in their address book). We don’t do this for privacy reasons and technical reasons. We can only find about 400 unique people in your photos or the accuracy starts to degrade dramatically.

    Munjal Shah – Riya

  2. Siddiq says:

    What I find really confusing about Riya is that nothing really seems as intuitive as it should be. The first butteon is search, despite that there is a text box at the top of hte page also labeled search, how are the two different do you need both? ALso when you click on the green search button you are presented with a page dominated by two big calendar months. What do the months have to do with searching? It took some playing with it to figure out that I was supposed to bound the date to search within a time frame (no I’m not terribly bright).

    I could go on with each button, but the basic problem is that things seem all over the place. There is a page on the site that list address books like gmail etc… I got to it once while exploring the site and it took me 15 minutes to try and get back to it. In other words I knew a page existed on the site but was unable to find it.

    What I would try to do is simplfy the interface and use all the ajax goodness your baking into the site to take the place of the buttons and reduce the brancing tree structure as much as possible. So if I click on search, I’m presented with (by date, relationship, time?, etc…).

    I remember a time when OCR was the bleeding edge of computer imaging technology. I’ve been supprised by the OCR capabilities of Riya and I’m sure that the technical issues with tracking users across image collections is something that will be solved in short order. I’d love to see an option to “expunge data” from Riya, it would be a “nice to have” feature the “need to haves” are the UI improvements. Of course the the only thing that will ensure privacy is when companies like your are committed to it and are transparent. I’m glad to see you take it seriously.

    Thanks so much for posting your thoughts.

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