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Picturing the future: Try new imaging applications from HP researchers at Snapfish Lab
By Simon Firth, April 2008

What do you want to do with your photos? HP Labs and Snapfish, HP's leading online photo service, are giving users a chance to try out and even shape the imaging applications of the future with Snapfish Lab.

The beta site offers prototypes of imaging tools fresh from HP Labs. Initially these include applications that let you easily create posters by dragging images into a layout, straighten a crooked horizon and view an album of photos without monotonously clicking through it.

Researchers have more in the works. They hope to use Snapfish Lab to get a better idea of what users really want.

"The challenge is knowing which ideas will be the most valuable to the most users," says Peng Wu, one of the researchers on the project.

 



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New model for research

Besides offering new tools to photographers, Snapfish Lab represents a new model for research and development at HP.

"The Web offers us the unique opportunity of direct communication and feedback with our customers," notes Patrick Scaglia, Chief Technology Officer for HP's Imaging and Printing business, which oversees the main Snapfish site and is Snapfish Lab's lead sponsor.

Scaglia, whose business group is a major customer for HP Labs innovations, says using the Web as a vehicle for incubating new technologies has the added benefit of speeding innovation.

"This can really accelerate the time it takes for ideas to move from HP Labs to market," he adds.

Whats' available

 

Snapfish Lab is open to all Snapfish customers. If you don't have an account, free sign-up is here.

Here's what's available so far:

  • Poster Creator: Create a poster by dragging pictures into a digital canvas. Then choose from several alternative layouts and swap and edit individual pictures as you like.
  • Auto Crop: This takes the tedium out of manual cropping by using advanced image-understanding algorithms - plus an appreciation for what makes a picture look great - to automatically suggest an improved composition for images.
  • Note Capture: Photograph a book, business card or whiteboard and this application finds the four sides of your subject and makes them an exact rectangle - creating a remarkably legible, printable image.
  • Clear Note: An alternate version of Note Capture, this tool both straightens your image and corrects its lighting and color. That makes it especially useful for white documents - turning your camera into a mobile scanner.
  • Fisheye Visualization: A flash-based application that lets you view an album of photos without monotonously clicking through it. Simply move your cursor over the collection to zoom in on whichever picture you want.
  • Automatic Horizon Alignment: Take a lopsided picture of, say, your friends at the beach, and this tool detects the horizon in the image and then straightens the picture up.

How it works

 

All of the new tools - developed by researchers Jian Fan, Brian Atkins, Jun Xiao and Phil Cheatle at HP Labs - are designed to provide users more ways to use, share and enjoy their images.

"People take thousands of digital photos, but most languish unseen and half-forgotten on memory cards and hard drives," says Eamonn O'Brien-Strain, another project team member. "We want to make it easy to explore these dusty digital piles and provide new fun,creative ways to share the photos with friends and family."

Whenever you log in to Snapfish Lab, the site automatically loads all of your Snapfish pictures and albums. Then you just choose which pictures and which tools to play with.

After you've used an application to create a new picture, or poster, you can easily save it back into your regular Snapfish account - where you can also order copies of any images you especially like.

Seeking user feedback

 

Researchers hope Snapfish Lab visitors will share their thoughts on applications they use.

"We want to get a two-way conversation going between us and our users, and among users themselves," explains Jerry Liu, the project's manager. Users can share comments on the Snapfish Lab discussion forum or they can contact the Snapfish Lab team directly.

In addition, researchers will regularly update a blog, describing changes and upcoming plans for the site's tools.

Customer-guided research

 

Although that means users could face the occasional buggy program, it also gives them a way to directly impact how the tools develop.

For example, two of the first batch of programs - Note Capture and Clear Note - provide different ways to improve text captured with a digital camera. Users' responses will help researchers determine which program is more useful.

Other technologies could be expanded. The engine that runs Poster Creator, for example, has a lot more potential functionality that would allow researchers to add features - if users want them.

"This lets people tell us what is important to them," says researcher Wu. "That helps us to improve imaging applications on the site and spark new research ideas."

Ongoing updates

 

Some of Snapfish Lab's most popular applications may make their way over to the main Snapfish site. Others may be reworked and surface in other HP imaging applications and devices. As applications move out of the lab, other prototypes will replace them.

"By opening HP Labs technologies to direct user feedback in an experimental setting," explains Imaging and Printing CTO Scaglia, "we can understand more quickly which technologies are likely to succeed in the market, how and where.

"This is not unlike the experimental applications any Google user can try at Google Labs," he adds. "In our case, we have 42 million Snapfish members - that's a great community to work with on Snapfish Lab."


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