Getting creative at the photo shop

HP Labs reinvents photo layout software, making photo kiosks much easier to use

By Simon Firth, March 2009

These days, most photo stores and retail chains feature kiosks that let consumers instantly turn their digital photographs into books, calendars and poster collages, as well as print out individual pictures.

But when it comes to creating the fancier items, says HP Labs’ Qian Lin, “people tend not to finish the projects they start.”

It’s not hard to figure out why, says Lin, director of HP’s Multimedia Interaction and Understanding Lab. “Essentially,” she says, “the process is too difficult to understand and it takes too long.”

Now, though, help is at hand. At this year's PMA 2009 International Convention in Las Vegas - the world's largest annual photo imaging event - HP introduced its latest HP Photo Center kiosk, featuring new software from HP Labs that makes getting creative with your photos quicker, more intuitive, and much easier to do.

Control and flexibility

Currently in conventional solutions, for example, if you want to make a photo page, you first choose a template with the right number of blank 'holes' in it before you fill that template with the pictures you like.

But then if you decide to add another picture – or if you decide the pattern of the ‘holes’ needs to be different – you have to go back in the process, pick a new template, fill it again and then check once more to see if you like it.

“Every time the customer has to go in and interact with that template, it’s a bother,” notes Brian Atkins, a researcher in Lin’s Multimedia Interaction and Understanding Lab.

What needs to happen instead, he says, “is that we allow the customer to edit the layout while they’re looking at it.” A few years ago, Atkins had an idea for how to do just that: by replacing the template library model with an algorithm for automatically making composites of multiple photos on the fly.

With such a process, says Atkins, “you get a lot of flexibility to support arbitrary numbers of photographs, any collection of aspect ratios and a lot of other attributes such as being able to enhance the size of a certain photo versus other photos on the page. You give yourself a lot of kinds of control.”

Optimizing the layout engine

From that idea, Atkins has created what he calls Blocked Recursive Image Composition (BRIC).

BRIC sets up a series of rules for how pictures should ideally be arranged on a page and then uses a sophisticated algorithm to place the pictures it’s given onto any page based on those rules.

Atkins’ latest version of BRIC allows a user to create a page and then change it in a number of ways. You can add more pictures to a page or poster, for example, just by dragging them from your ‘library’ area into the composition. And you can just as easily remove pictures in the same way.

You can repeatedly shuffle the pictures on the page until you get the pattern you like, and you can both flip the composition and swap any pictures you want. It’s also possible to make one picture larger than the rest without changing where the photos are placed relative to each other.

“You can even replace a portrait with a landscape photograph,” notes Atkins. “And the composition will adjust automatically. Once again, the whole layout is recomputed so the composite still adheres to the requirements of spacing and the margins on the page.”

“What Brian’s done is pretty unique,” says Qian Lin. “And it’s a tough thing to crack. There are an infinite number of possible solutions for laying out a particular page, and yet the optimization he’s doing has to be done in real time.”

Software breakthrough

HP’s Retail Publishing Solutions group first launched its Photo Center kiosks at the 2006 PMA expo. Since then, says Photo Center project manager Michael Wilson, “We’ve released some 15 updates to our solution.” But with the release announced this week, he says, “we're taking a step forward.”

In order to get Atkins’ latest version of the BRIC engine into the Photo Center, reports Wilson, Atkins and two of his own software engineers completely rewrote the kiosk’s software.

"It was sort of an extreme programming effort," Wilson recalls. "The three guys took Brian's engine and rewrote it in about a week," adding in a number of nontrivial optimizations along the way. "We reduced the number of lines of code by two-thirds, which means it's easier to support. And by building in better error handling we improved the performance. It was an impressive joint effort."

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With HP’s Photo Center kiosks now much easier to use, it’s likely that similar innovations will find their way into HP’s other consumer-oriented photographic services.

For HP Labs, the next challenge will be to enable both photographs and text to be edited on the fly. “With text,” Atkins notes, “you’d like it to follow a picture, even when you move the picture to another page. And it’s tricky because you can’t just keep shrinking text to make it fit – at some point it becomes unreadable.”

The new version of BRIC will allow many more people to complete more satisfying creative photo projects, says Atkins. “And doing this with photos and text will just multiply the possibilities we offer people by a factor of ten.”