The hype and rumors around Riya are perplexing to me. In fact, count me as skeptical. Some of the uber-bloggers, Robert Scoble, Om Malik, and Michael Arrington have been praising Riya, yet saying little about what Riya actually does. These guys are very influential in the tech community and can create a lot of buzz...and they have. So, there must be something there... Riya is in a controlled beta right now, but their web site indicates that they do picture categorization, tagging, search, and face detection. I am not in the beta so I have no idea what they really do, but the stated features are certainly not new.
Image search has been around for 8 years. Nick Whyte and our team at AltaVista were the inventors of multi-media search and it is still in use today at Yahoo. Nick now works for Microsoft in the search group. All the major players have reasonably good image search. It is much more difficult and sophisticated than text search, but takes advantage of many of the same techniques. We had some crude face detection technology and some pretty sophisticated skin detection technology to screen out pornography.
Face detection has been around for more than 30 years. The Defense Department, CIA, NSA, and all the defense/intelligence guys have been buying this stuff for years. There are also lots of PhD's from MIT, CMU, Stanford and other places that have done work on face detection and image identification. There is lots of technology already in the marketplace. Tagging and categorization has been around for a long time too.
Bradley Horowitz was one of the founders of Virage, a leader in search within video, is now at Yahoo doing multi-media search. Virage had very sophisticated speech recognition and video pattern recognition technology for searching for specific clips within a long video.
The real question is not how sophisticated Riya's technology is, but what problem do they solve? There are lots of photo sites that allow you to store, categorize, tag, and search photos. So, for anyone who actually uses Riya, I have a few questions. Actually, these are the same questions I ask any new start-up;
- What problem does it solve?
- How are people dealing with this problem today?
- Who will pay money for the solution to this problem?
- How much will they pay? What is your revenue model?
- What do you have that the search or photo service companies don't have?
- What unique technology do you have that can't be easily implemented by the big guys?
- Is this a "vitamin" (nice to have) or a "pain killer" (got to have it)?
- Why would one of the big players be interested in acquiring the company?
Maybe there is good reason for all the hype around Riya. But, until I see the service and understand the problem it solves I remain skeptical.
In my job I see hundreds of new software / service companies every year. Most of them are all about technical innovation. I love technology and always want to know how it works, but technical innovation only matters when it is applied to a real problem that satisfies a pain point. Asking the eight questions above can help focus the discussion on the real pain point and value proposition.
Can anyone answer these questions with regard to Riya?
UPDATE: Several of you have responded in the Comments section with descriptions of what Riya does. It appears that face detection and automatic tagging of the faces it recognizes is the main feature. Riya strikes me as a "nice to have" feature of a larger service, but not something, on its own, that you could build a profitable company around.
I know of lots of other face detection technologies on the market and completed projects in research labs that do the same thing. The task is made much simpler since it only has to recognize a very small set of faces...the dozen or so faces that are in 90% of your pictures.
I know Microsoft has similar technology sitting on the shelf in the research labs. I am pretty sure Yahoo does too. I don't see a big barrier to entry for any of the big guys to enter this business if and when they want to.
Still not much information on the business or revenue model. I don't see how ads can be effectively targetted to pictures with keywords like "Robin, Caelan, and Devan". I have learned painful lessons about cool technologies, even those that attract millions of users, not translating into a sustainable business. AltaVista and Napster are two examples from my personal experience.
Riya probably does have some new twists on the technology, and may eventually figure out how to attract lots of users, and monetize the service. But at this point, the hype is way ahead of the reality.