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.
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?