2020 has made screens our primary interface to the world. While pre-pandemic, we were mostly physically interacting with the world, using all of our six senses, the past year has been essentially just visual.  Except for our immediate family, it is via a digital representation, text, photos, or video that we have and continue to interact with the outside world. This has made visual content even more important and critical to our everyday lives. Unknowingly, we have surrendered to the shadows in the cave. But not without repercussions.

Percentage of consumers increasing the time they spend. Essentially just visual content. Source: Doubleverify

Truth or die

Our increasing reliance on visual content has increased our skepticism in their veracity. From deepfakes to AI-enhanced imaging, the threat of indiscernible falsification has done more damage to image credibility than its actual application.  Even vision A.I., with its heavy reliance on large volumes of images for training, is threatened. Photos and videos are fighting an existential battle that could forever redefine their role and utility in our society.  And this time, technology may not help as we realize it is better at falsifying than validating. Companies promising to secure visual content credibility, even if their business model is yet unproven, have timidly emerged in 2020. The next year will confirm, or not, what direction we will go.

Authentic or synthetic

Looking forward to 2021, we will see the resistance against any AI-enhanced or generated content amplify. While photo and video software has made A.I. more freely available to consumers, it has also considerably blurred the lines between reality and creativity.  While image created by humans enhanced by computer vision and synthetic content will dominate in volume, hand made editing photography will gather new followings and appreciation. Similar to the attraction of vinyl in the music world, analog film photography will grow in appeal and usage. Authenticity will soon mean produced without the help of an AI.

E-commerce explosion

2020 has seen an incredible 129% year-over-year growth in e-commerce. What we tend to forget is that indispensable product photos and videos support all e-commerce success. Consumers and brands have a new moment of truth in the form of digital files, as images ultimately replace package design, shelf position, and aisles allocation in the purchasing decision process. New medium, new rules, new power players. Visual content no longer comes in support of the merchandise; it is its conversion point. While the past year has not seen drastic changes in this field, expect smart players in 2021 and beyond to take full advantage and adapt.

Photos have become the primary touchpoint between consumers and brands.

Companies have also increasingly learned the value of visuals and how directly they are linked to growth.  Becoming more visually aware and mature, implementing full-blown unified visual content strategies that span across content management, from creation to distribution and from product shots to social media communications. What was handled by separate teams is now coming under one strategy. And what was considered a supporting activity is now taking the front lines.

A new dimension

Depth aware photography will be an evolution that will continue to gain momentum. With newly available technologies like the Lidar in the Apple 12, ease of creation will trigger more production. Perfect to visually describe a product, as well as space, it would fit very well in the e-commerce suite of tools. It is also an easy stepping stone to AR, which is still struggling to grab traction. Google, Samsung, and all major manufacturers in the photo space should happily welcome the new feature as it could lead to a well-needed renewal of consumers’ hardware.

Brooklyn bathrooms Mural example of Lidar in action by alban on Sketchfab 


Understanding why

The new year should also bring forth significant advancement in visual context understanding, if only in research. Social media platforms are under immense pressure to self-regulate visual content to filter out any racist, violent, or illegal content and manipulated news. Considering the volumes, only an AI-powered filtering solution could work. And only a context understanding AI could perform at scale with minimum false positives. Beyond social media, visual search would greatly benefit from context comprehension, allowing for substantially more precise phrase-based queries. And our images could yield even more valuable data to advertisers…

The storm A-coming

In June of next year, 27 countries of the European Union will uniformly implement article 17 of the directive on copyright. While it might seem like another exercise in European legislation, it will have a major ripple effect on the rest of the world as well. Photo copyright enforcement will rise to levels never seen before. And no one is ready.

Google is just now displaying image licensing information. This allows them to somewhat circumnavigate the rule by saying, “we might not have a license, but here is where you can get one.” It also incentives copyright owners to systematically enter proper contact information. It also allows Google to index the information and start building a rights owner database.

The license badge from Google Image search
The license badge from Google Image search

Facebook has quickly launched its version of content ID for photos. Similar to how the Youtube version functions, a collection of images can be uploaded and, in turn, report on their usage within the platform. Right holders can grant, or not, permission. Unlike Youtube, there is no revenue sharing here as of yet. With this process, Facebook is also building a database of right holders.

Other large sharing platforms like Twitter and Pinterest have been extremely quiet on this issue for now.

Incentivized by the fact that they can finally get control, if not revenue, from their images, photographers will certainly expand claims way past beyond the biggest internet companies. They will get better organized and get busy. Other businesses currently taking advantage of the safe harbor law will feel the pressure. In turn, and depending on how successful the implementation, it might even lead to a revival of the photography profession.

What now?

If 2020 has taught us anything, it is how predictions are precarious. Or if you do make some, do not expect them to come true. Thus, anything you just read should come with a disclaimer that it will only be true if nothing changes.

Have a wonderful, safe, and successful, happy new year!

Main image: Photo by Werner Du plessis on Unsplash

Author: Paul Melcher

Paul Melcher is a highly influential and visionary leader in visual tech, with 20+ years of experience in licensing, tech innovation, and entrepreneurship. He is the Managing Director of MelcherSystem and has held executive roles at Corbis, Stipple, and more. Melcher received a Digital Media Licensing Association Award and is a board member of Plus Coalition, Clippn, and Anthology, and has been named among the “100 most influential individuals in American photography”

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