Last October I wrote about the importance – and the difficulty – of embedding descriptions into digital photos. As a test, I ended the article by asking readers to download a photo into which I embedded a quote from Benjamin Franklin. I also asked readers to let me know if they could see the quote and, if so, to name the program they used to display the quote.
Here are some results and conclusions from that test.
• Over 80 readers responded
• Almost everyone could see the quote
• Most of the respondents used photometadata freeware to display the quote
So, in general, the test confirms that there are few constraints — technical or financial — to displaying photometadata. Phone-based and standalone digital cameras can display some basic photometadata (though I don’t think it displays descriptions) but you can’t add text. And, of course, you can display and add metadata to a digital photo on a computer with the right software and a little effort.
One other result took me by surprise. But I’m going to save that for the end of this story and use it for a new experiment that will tie in with this photo of children.
Asking people to add descriptions to their digital photos is like asking them to write descriptions on back of their paper photos. Doing so (writing on paper photos) is a good practice but most people don’t do it, including me. It’s time consuming, you have to wait for the ink to dry until you can stack the photos and so on. But someday these descriptions may help jog your memory or help other viewers understand the content of the photos. (“Oh, that’s grandma when she was a teenager.”) Similarly, adding descriptions to digital photos — photometadata — is a good practice but it is also a chore.
Mike Wash, the CIO of NARA, was an Kodak engineer for about 30 years. While at Kodak, Wash was responsible for many of the automated developments that we take granted on cameras today, like autofocus, automatic light adjustment and technical metadata recording (such as the date and time the photo was taken and the light and shutter-speed settings).
I asked him if it was possible to have a feature on a digital camera that would enable users to easily add metadata. Wash said, “I think that nearly everyone would agree that some sort of data associated with an image is valuable. But the hardest part is going to be dealing with the variable nature of what type of information you would use. Creating an ‘all things to all people’ type of one-touch metadata entry is going to be pretty hard.”
Wash added, though, that “documenting information about the photo” is one of the features his team of engineers at Kodak had on their list of unmet consumer needs. However, people will not want to allocate any time to the task of adding metadata; for example, typing a description into a camera or a smart phone would be awkward, time consuming and unappealing. “It has to be automatic,” Wash said. “Beyond easy.”
The idea that makes the most “beyond easy” sense is also a bit daring: voice-to-text software. With the photo displayed on your camera, you click a button or open an app, speak a few words about the photo into the device and the text of your words gets embedded into the photo file. Both Mike Wash and photometadata evangelist David Riecks support the idea.
Wash said, “Voice technology has improved a lot over the past few years. And that would easily translate into a low-cost feature.” Wash stressed that the cost threshhold is crucial to public acceptance. He mentioned a feature of the Kodak Advantix system that didn’t get developed because the budget to put it into a camera, at .25¢, was too much. Wash said, “You’re aiming for tenths of pennies here and there because all of that equates into less margin or too high a price to dissuade a consumer from buying your product.”
So we have the technological capability to add a voice-to-text photometadata function to digital cameras, and we have a need to embed descriptions to our digital photos, but –- for practical and economic reasons –- it must be cost effective for manufactures to develop it. It is likely that once consumers know that it is possible and easy to do, and they see the value of added descriptions in helping organize and find their photos, the market will favor the camera manufacturers who make that feature available. In a short time it could become a standard feature.
One more word about Mike Wash’s support of adding descriptive information to photos. It’s not just an interesting “cocktail conversation” idea for him. He actually has two vintage 100-year-old Autographic cameras. One sits on his desk. Kodak built the Autographic to enable users to write descriptions onto photographic film. After you take a picture (using special Autographic film) you open a little door in the camera back and you can write a note that would come out between frames. Wash said, “You just hold the camera with the little window up to a bright light for five or ten seconds and close the door. And it actually exposes your metadata onto the film between the negatives. It’s pretty cool.”
Now for the new experiment.
In the “find the photo description” test we conducted in the previous blog on this subject, a number of people found the quote embedded into the photo simply by searching their computers. I wasn’t aware that this was an option but, sure enough, current operating systems (Mac, PC and Linux) index any text they find in files, including photo files. Which means that you can search your computer for specific text (the computer will consult the index) and it’ll find the text, whatever it is, wherever it is and display — in the search results — the file in which the text resides.
This has some intriguing implications for photo storage. For example, if you know that you have a particular text in the photometadata (e.g. “Golden Gate Bridge”) but aren’t sure what the photo file name is or where on your computer you stashed the photo, you can still search and find that photo.
So here’s another test for you to try. In the photo at the top of this page, I embedded the following quote from the writer, Michael McLaverty, “When the heart’s cold, the voice of a child can warm it.” Download the photo file to anywhere in your computer (Either click and drag the photo to your desktop or on a PC: right-click and “Save As” and on a Mac: Control-click and “Save Image As”). Then search for the word “McLaverty.” (PC: Start menu > Search > Files or folders; Mac: Search).
Outcomes may vary, depending on your operating system and version, but in the “search results” you should see the photo of the children.