Geek Insider would like to thank Stefan Weitz, Senior Director of Search at Bing, for taking time out of his busy schedule to chat with us. We would also like to thank Phil Butler for coordinating the interview.
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Geek Insider: Firstly, the versatility of the Photosynth samples I’ve seen is very impressive. Could you summarize in your own words what makes the new Photosynth so interesting?
Stefan Weitz: Well, the main difference between Photosynth V1 and Photosynth V2 is that we enabled far more natural capture experiences. In the first Photosynth, you would take a number of pictures and we would try to stitch them together and recreate that three-dimensional world, but the transitions were a little bit jerky, a little disorienting sometimes to actually navigate around, and that was just due to the way we captured it. The new one really is far more focused on how humans actually examine their worlds, so for example, there’s one of the types of synth where you can kind of, say, walk around an object and capture it from all angles, so that’s how if you walk into a room, for example, that’s how you would likely look at the room; you’d kinda walk in and walk around the room and that’s what we wanted to capture. And we added a bunch of other different types, like the wall type where you can walk across kind of a wall or a flat surface, and then we added the panorama that we’d had before but a little more advanced, so it was really all designed to say “How can we really make this feel more like a human would actually interact with the world in three dimensions?”
GI: Lumia devices have been widely praised for their excellent cameras, and Microsoft has developed a good reputation of partnering with outside photography experts to show what its products are truly capable of. How heavily are they involved in the design process, and can you give any specific examples of how their feedback has helped Photosynth or any other software you’ve worked on?
SI: That’s a great question. Photosynth, the actual base technology, has been around for a while, so I don’t think Nokia had a huge impact on the development of this one, but I’ll double-check with the engineering team to make sure I’m not fibbing there. But really, the guys like David Gedye who’s one of the lead guys on Photosynth, y’know he’s, you’re right, he has had and does continue to have a number of relationships with very good photographers across the world, and they definitely contribute to the early feedback of this. As you saw, David Breashears who was a National Geographic photographer captured Mount Everest in Photosynth, and he was obviously one of the early guys who saw the power of this and said “Man, we can really use this to capture something like Mount Everest in a way that no-one’s ever seen.” He did the early Imax film about Kilimanjaro, and the Everest Imax film as well, so he had a lot of experience there.
GI: With Windows Phone and Bing at the core, Microsoft is offering products that have refreshingly different visual identities from other devices. Is there a central goal or ethos you have in mind when driving user interface development?
SW: Ah, that’s a great question. I mean, certainly there’s a real focus on human/computer interaction in the modern world, and that sounds very silly, but what I’m trying to say is that, I was talking to Julie Green yesterday who runs all the hardware for us, and we were talking about the fact that the goal really these days is to minimize a lot of that interface. How do we actually- how do we make it very fast, very fluid, but actually get you to where you want to be? How do we deliver the right amount of information to somebody without overwhelming them with 500 icons, for example? How are we smart about notification? How are we smart about notifying you at the right time? If you look at, say, the new Map app from Bing, that’s an example of where we understand what your general commute is, and if your commute begins to look worse than it should at a given time of day, we’ll actually alert you with a toast on the screen, and then of course have a notification on the Live Tile on Windows even to let you know what’s going on, so it is that question of “How do we build this fast and fluid and very human interface but also make sure that when you’re finished using the interface and you want to get to your task, we can get out of your way?”
GI: Okay, great! In 2013 we saw the market share for Windows Phone go up faster than basically anyone else, and 2014 stands to be a very interesting year. For anyone unfamiliar with Windows Phone, or any of your Bing products, or is on the fence about switching, how would you describe the general overall experience they provide?
SW: Wow, that’s a great one. I’ll take Bing first as that’s the one I do most of the work with. The experience there is, again, focused on “How can we help you take action in the real world?” Too much search has been focused on this notion of finding a webpage with a keyword, and that was great when the web was primarily a bunch of pages, but the reality today is the web is much more capable. It can help you do things, whether it’s get a car on the corner, of course book a restaurant, do menu services, find a masseuse, really all these things that connect your real-world intent to a real-world action, and so Bing is really focused, whether it’s Bing on Windows 8.1 with Smart Search, or Bing on Windows Phone with things like local scout, it’s really focused on “OK, let’s look at the web not as a bunch of pages, but let’s look at the web as this very high-definition proxy of the real world–all the connections inside of it, all the things on it–and then recommend and promote things to you that will help you take an action to get something done.” That’s probably the biggest shift if you look at how we differ from competitors. And on [Windows] Phone, and I think there you’ve got obviously a wide range of devices at every price point, which is great. So from the very reasonably priced 520 all the way up to the 1020—which is still reasonably priced, actually!—you’ve got a wide range of hardware and capabilities. But on the software itself, that’s where, again, looking at how we didn’t want to just create a bunch of icons on screen—y’know, that’s been done—but really, if you look at the phone, it’s so focused around your interactions in the real world, people, and how you can make people first-class citizens on the phone and promote them to the homepage of your screen, and all those different sorts of things. It really is a device that is meant for everybody, and not just, y’know, computer science geeks, or those sorts of people. You can get it if you’re a science geek, and I still love it! [Laughing] But you don’t have to be one to use it.
GI: With everything Photosynth can do, obviously the things you’ve mentioned, the new kinds of things it can do in this version, it seems like there would be numerous prospective licensing deals on the horizon, or various opportunities to have integration with, for example, things we’ve seen like hotels with regard to showing interiors or architecture. Can you give us any tidbits about any upcoming announcements regarding specific implementations of Photosynth or any other Bing applications?
SW: Well, we’re working with a couple of folks in Europe, obviously nothing really to announce, though in the next couple of days we may have something and I’ll be sure to reach out to you, but the nice thing about Photosynth is that it’s free. Anyone can use it. If a hotel chain decides they want to go and Photosynth all their rooms, they can do that. There’s nothing stopping them, there’s no license fee they have to pay, there’s no money to us they have to pay, so the real benefit of Photosynth is that it is something that we’ve made available to the world at no cost, and we’d love to see what companies and consumers and anybody else for that matter can do with it.
GI: Obviously with the fact that all phone photos now are geotagged, could there be any kind of implementation—if there’s going to be this kind of Photosynth software available to all Windows Phone users and anyone who can access Bing—could you see a system emerge to make use of volunteered or third-party image data to further flesh out streetviews on Bing Maps?
SW: There- yes. There’s absolutely- I know David hasn’t spec’d that yet, but the notion… we started today to geolocate synth, so if you take a synth, when you synth it up, you tag where it was and we can lay those onto that and whatnot, so that’s possible. Actually crowdsourcing, actually using existing photos with geotags to flesh out… potentially. Of course, you have a density issue and a scarcity of information issue there, so you’d have to… it could work in special areas that are very highly photographed. I know we’ve done some kind of research work where we have gone through, say, we went through the Flickr database, oh gosh, a couple of years ago now, and we pulled the geotags of the photos that were Creative Commons Licensed and actually overlaid those onto streetview so you could look at, say, different views of the same landmark, you know, from different people over time, for example, so we’ve already begun- we did that a couple of years ago, which is pretty cool, but I haven’t, as far as… I’d have to think about that, if that would make… it would depend on the level of data, yeah, but I mean there’s nothing stopping us from doing it, for sure.
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