With an estimated 1.2 trillion photos taken in 2015, it is no wonder that most vanish in the deep grooves of some remote hard drive. And while it takes on a few fractions of a second to capture a photo, it seems to take an eternity ( along with herculean efforts) to retrieve then. The irony of it all is that, for an instrument that should enhance our memorial faculties, it gives us a harder time trying to recall if and where we stored that memory we so wanted to never forget. Not anymore. A new empathetic photo app called Yarn helps dig and retrieve those moments, using human-like intelligence to connect photos together. We talked with founder and ceo Donna Romer to learn more:
A little about you, what is your background?
I am a serial entrepreneur with a long history in software product innovation, startup business launch and tech business management. I started out as a software engineer in the first half of my career and finding elegant and simple ways to solve image & video database problems with commercial products really inspired my creative mind.
I hold 9 patents in image & video processing, digital cameras, computer vision and natural language technology and the 10th is a patent application in machine learning and computer vision for Yarn’s Memory Machine. Now as a product and business exec, the entire process of growing a company energizes me, from idea to launch and beyond. My most notable products & companies have been PictureQuest, eMotion, ClearView Networks, Yieldbot, and Yarn.
Explain Yarn. What does it solve?
Yarn is solving the “drowning in photos” problem for consumers. Photos have always been ephemeral, but at least in the analog era, you could more easily go to your photos and riffle through a shoebox to find what you were looking for. In the 1960’s people took about 150 photos per year, so that browsing method was still feasible. In 2015 consumers took 2k / 3k per year. Browsing digitally, even with a fast time slider that you see in photo gallery apps today, is already not that useful and will be the “shoebox” of the not too distant future.
Yarn’s approach has 3 simple principles. First, instead of users having to go to their photos, their photos must come to them, automatically. Second, users do not have time or patience to organize their photos, so every user action must contain a signal that provides incremental organization as a byproduct. Last, photos are a form of extended personal memory, so deliver a “remembering” experience that surprises, delights, and moves, all with a human touch.
How does it work?
Photo sources are first connected to the Yarn cloud through our iOS and Android apps or the desktop uploader. Yarn then provides a sitback discovery experience from a lifetime of photos. Yarn automatically generates photo collages and delivers them through a Daily Yarn or the Yarn Feed on demand feature.
Users get to see photos from times long forgotten or just yesterday. Through the discovery path, simple share and remember actions, users have at their fingertips ways to get full use out of their entire photo experiences.
Considering your background, Yarn must use a lot of advanced image technology?
In order to create great automatically generated photo groups, Yarn does use best in class image processing, computer vision and machine learning methods, with, of course, our own secret sauce contained in the Yarn Memory Machine. We also thought long and hard on the functioning of recall and recognition in human memory, as well as picture cognition. All of these tools and ideas guided us as we built the Memory Machine and the Yarn Feed that it populates.
Who is Yarn typical user?
The typical Yarn user values their photo library primarily because they enjoy the photo nostalgia experience and secondarily for the utility value of the facts that a photo can communicate. We have seen our most active users being families with lots of photos moms, dads, busy parents with children and photo enthusiasts, who just by their nature love to be reminded about their creative work. There are many kinds of users on Yarn, but these are the two that stand out as we come to understand our user base. The simple actions around discovery, remembering and sharing seem to meet most of their photo needs.
Is Yarn more about organizing or sharing?
Photo organizing? Truly, no one has time for that. I would like to overturn the photo organizing paradigm completely! Photos are amazing time capsules that should never feel like they come with a burdensome task. So with that in mind, the most important actions for Yarn are Remember and Share, and those are empowered by the Discovery features. As I mentioned earlier, organization should be a byproduct of other more meaningful actions. Enjoy your photos, and the signals around interest and delight should be plenty to make some order for returning to them again and again.
What is the business model? do you plan to charge for Yarn?
Yarn is currently 100% free. All businesses need some way to generate revenue, so we are thinking long and hard on different kinds of value that consumers would be willing to pay for because they provide fun or add to the meaning of their photo memories. While charging for storage is a kind of costplus model, that seems to me to have the least differentiated value for the user overall.
Just imagine the fun to be had with in-app purchase or print extensions. I can’t tell you how many times users have asked to be able to send their Yarn Books to be printed.
Don’t you fear that if successful, Yarn might be copied by an Apple or Google? And if so, then what?
It is the nature of our industry to learn (i.e., copy) from others. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants when we build any product. The fear of many small product companies is the one that you mention, but I think that it is the very uncoordinated nature of big companies to miss the solution that the startup envisions. That is why we have startups that can see lower to the ground.
Of course, Apple or Google can copy anything. But while copying a feature may look easy, that excludes something fundamental to building software products, and that is everything that a team has learned along the way. All of those microdecisions are what support the feature that you see. Copying only gives you a copy, but not the intelligence about what comes next.
There are many other apps in the same space. How do you stand out and compete?
The photo space is very crowded, and I take that as a good thing because the single most important photo problem of our era is still not solved! There are too many photos, too hard to access and enjoy. If you look at all the products in the consumer photo space, they and
If you look at all the products in the consumer photo space, they and we, all have an angle for solving that problem. Eventually, a handful of companies will find the right feature combination that can span a large number of people. Yarn offers a different paradigm for interacting with past photos and memories. By sticking to our principles and integrating what we learn, Yarn will be in that handful left standing.
What would you like to see Yarn offer that technology cannot yet deliver?
Automatically derived semantic, visually-mined, deeply meaningful and inference node-connected photo metadata that can power the real timeline of your life. Full stop.
But I would also add another dimension to your question, and that is what the “technology industry” cannot yet deliver. How about photo metadata that is never separated from a photo wherever it resides and whatever app opens, edits and saves it? This technology has been within reach for years. It is the market positioning of industry leaders that continues to block a photo from carrying its meaning and integrity from platform to platform. If you write someone’s name on a printed photo, that metadata would be there whether you put it in an envelope, framed it behind glass, put it in your wallet, mailed it to a friend. Paper and ink, the best future proof solution that digital photos still can’t support.
Author: Paul Melcher
Paul Melcher is the founder of Kaptur and Managing Director of Melcher System, a consultancy for visual technology firms. He is an entrepreneur, advisor, and consultant with a rich background in visual tech, content licensing, business strategy, and technology with more than 20 years experience in developing world-renowned photo-based companies with already two successful exits.