Saturday, August 30, 2008

Review : Viewzi

In today's day and age, search is becoming more and more critical to Internet users. As the amount of data on the Internet is growing exponentially, it's becoming very difficult to find exactly what you need since there are so many variations of everything on the net. Add to this the potential revenue to be earned via ads and you have one very lucrative field (Online ad revenues are estimated to be around $80 billion by 2010).

The success of Google and the above mentioned factors have all led to a proliferation of search engines : each one promoting itself as the next potential Google killer. However, it is not very easy to create a scalable search engine which is also good at returning relevant results. One needs a very good indexing algorithm, just having enough infrastructure is not enough. I have seen and tried a number of search engines including (and the now infamous) Cuil which went down on the very first day even after generating a lot of hype before its launch. Another one, which is pretty useful but whose usefulness is currently just limited to Wikipedia, is the semantic search engine Powerset. Semantic means that the search engine is able to "understand" the contents of the web pages and hence, allows users to query in natural language rather than the user having to frame his query in a way that the search engine can understand. Powerset has shown potential and Microsoft's acquisition of the company is a testament to this.

However, the one search engine I've liked the most (amongst the latest ones of course :) ) is Viewzi. It has an extremely appealing visual interface which certainly impressed me the first time I tried it. Instead of the normal hyperlink (famously called the "ten blue link") design, it has a number of different "views" (actually it has the "ten blue link" design as one of the views, for the traditional people I suppose). Each of the views has a number of sources, for example, for the "Simple text view" the sources used are Yahoo and Google. The site has about 15 different views (talk about spoiling the customer for choice). Some of my favourite views are :
  1. Video view : Sources are youtube (has to be), blinkx and veoh. The results appear as 3 horizontal bars across the page and are very intuitive to use
  2. MP3 view : This view uses seeqpod and mp3 realm as its sources. The best thing about this view is that you can play songs directly from the search page. Here is an example search for Shaan
  3. Timeline view : This is a very informative and at the same time attractive way of looking at results. The results are laid out from left to right along a timeline and scrolling at the ends will move the timeline accordingly. One can also look at a glimpse of the article by clicking on one of the results. Just check out this view for Sachin Tendulkar, its amazing

Here are the pros and cons of this tool, in my opinion :

Pros :

  1. The visual attractiveness has to be the USP for this site. I have not seen any other search engine come anywhere close to its ease of use and interactiveness
  2. The results are fairly good for common queries
  3. There are no ads (at least not yet)

Cons :

  1. To be a real threat to Google and be a major contender in the search engine industry, the site needs to add more sources for getting better results
  2. One major limitation of the service currently (and something which they will hopefully fix soon) is an absence of a toolbar. all the other major search engines have one, even new ones like Scour. Toolbars make it really easy for the user to perform searches without disrupting his current page. I think it would be even more useful for viewzi given its multiple views options.

I think that there has to be something disruptive like viewzi or the vertical search engines which can break the near monopoly of Google in the search business and make search a level playing field again. The only concern for me is that Google can just as easily buy such engines for a huge amount and increase its monopoly. Let's hope Microsoft or Yahoo gets to viewzi first and maybe that will narrow the gap in the search market share.

Review : Photosynth

Microsoft recently released its much awaited technology called Photosynth. This is a very cool technology developed by Microsoft Research in association with University of Washington. The name is derived from "photo" which means picture and "synth" which is a short form for a "musical synthesizer" i.e. an instrument used to create music. Photosynth allows users to create a 3D model from a collection of "related" 2D photos. The users can then zoom in and out of the 3D picture as well as move in all directions.

The tool works by identifying a set of common areas between images and then stitching together those areas to form a 3D model of the scene. All that one needs is a decent camera and some ingenuity to be able to shoot a series of photos that resemble each other. In addition, one needs a decent Internet connection to be able to upload all those pics onto the site. Microsoft has used this technology to create another similar application which also creates a 3D model of a structure but has additional powerful features such as balance out the lighting effects between different photos to create a smoother model. Photosynth has already been featured on CSI:Miami where it was used by detectives to solve a case and talks are on between Microsoft and NASA to use this technology at the International Space Station for finding out defects in the ISS body. The service has proven really popular, so popular in fact that the servers were overwhelmed on the first day itself and service went down for a few hours.

Here is how to use this service :
  1. Navigate to Photosynth
  2. Log in with your live id and create a profile which basically requires you to specify a name and description for the synth (yes that is what they call the 3D model :) ) you are trying to create
  3. Once logged in, browse your desktop and upload the photos from which you want the synth to be created and wait till the images are uploaded and processed.
  4. Once done, the synth will be displayed. You can check mine although evidently, it's not too synthy (only 20%)

Here are the pros and cons of the service, in my opinion :

Pros :

  1. It is a really cool tool to play with and use to share photos with your friends and family
  2. It has very little client footprint ( only a plugin needs to be installed). Much of the processing happens on the cloud.
  3. It's decent in terms of speed, much of it depends on your Internet connection speed but the processing seems pretty fast
  4. You can tag the synths which makes searching easier

Cons :

  1. The fact that it has a very little client footprint is also a disadvantage since one needs to be connected to the Internet to be able to use it
  2. There is no option to save your creations onto the desktop ( Hopefully this will change once the product matures )
  3. All creations are public which means anyone can see any one's synths
  4. It works only on PCs right now (Support for the Mac is expected soon)

However, the product is still in its infancy and we can expect Microsoft to add more features (most importantly : Saving synths and authorization ) in the near future. All in call, I found it a lot of fun to work with and a nice way to share your experiences with your family and friends and help them relive it in 3D