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November 15 2018

PHD at Web Summit | Is the future of search visual?


When the internet first started it was text-based and lacking in visuals. But as visual creatures living in a visual world, it was inevitable that we would lead the internet to eventually be the same. A few years ago, there was a lot of academic research in computer vision and so we are starting to see that investment in the development of computer vision software. The combination of the technology advancement, a huge amount of visual data and the acceleration of computational power has led us to this point where computer vision capabilities are beyond what we even conceptualised just a few years ago.

Pinterest Lens, the brand’s visual search tool, is currently competing with Google and Microsoft in this space. The difference in products comes down to how those platforms are already being used: Google is used to query the world and get objective results, whereas Pinterest users are seeking out inspiration. Computer vision that is designed to inspire should show viewers things they may know but haven’t necessarily seen before. The results need to feel different enough that they are not redundant, and relevant enough that time isn’t wasted – a total package that requires a completely different attitude than that of a search query.

Visual search tools feel like a super-fast opportunity to commerce, speeding up the process between desire and avenues to purchase.  We already shop in this way – taking pictures to hairdressers for style inspiration, or describing clothing to salespeople; brands are just now enabling this on a much wider scale. It isn’t a crazy idea that this could one day translate to a heads-up display (HUD). After all, many people already wear glasses – add the function of easy access to information, then there would absolutely be a market for that.

There’s even a theory that HUDs would reduce the amount we stare into our phones (and the resultant accidents that have occurred because of that) and help us be more engaged with the world. This will depend entirely on whether you see the purpose of technology as something that consumes and distracts us from our lives, or as something which enriches our lives.

Ben Silbermann adds that Pinterest’s goal has never been to keep people hooked to their site, but rather to inspire people to go out and do something. When you question how this squares away with running a business, the answer is simple: Pinterest aligns with what consumers want (to discover something) and what businesses want (to be discovered).

Pinterest also believes that technology should make us happy and feel good. The brand has ingrained in its operations the understanding that it must be in tune with how its users are feeling, and whether they are coming away inspired, and how Pinterest can improve their methods to ensure that continued understanding. One aspect Pinterest discovered about its users is that there is a huge demand for a personal space where there is no judgement and no need for external validation. The Pinterest platform helps balance that demand with the ability to share socially.

There are two key things that can be learnt about humanity from Pinterest users:

  1. How similar people are all over the world
    Culturally we have different contexts, but the things that make us happy remain constant: home, travel, fashion, food. So much is written about how cultures differ from each other, but really there is a lot at the base of each culture that’s ultimately the same.
  2. The amount of boards that exist around feelings
    Pinterest now has a quarter of a billion users and one of the most common uses is still boards and pins that make users feel better about themselves, that make them feel relaxed and happy. Emotions are often overlooked in technology, but it’s key to remember that people looking for tools to feel good are willing to actively use and cultivate these tools to reconnect with those positive feelings over time.

Pinterest, Silbermann assures, doesn’t want to be a service that people feel they need to ban from their lives or that people is affecting them in a negative way. The aim for the future is to have a homepage that feels like it’s been curated by a close friend and includes things users have never seen before. Technologies like machine learning and computer vision are getting Pinterest and other brands closer to that path, and in turn, closer to bringing even more inspiration into the lives of users.

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