Yahoo’s Studies on Mobile Camera Phones and Geo-Referencing Images

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In these days of increasing mobile phone usage, including phones that have cameras and can connect to the web, I found myself enthralled by a paper which described the path to Yahoo’s Zonetag.

Imagine if you take a researcher who has been studying how people use mobile phones (and mobile camera phones) and team her up with a researcher who has been studying assigning geographic locations to pictures. You’d probably end up with a paper like:

Location and Photos – A Match Made in Heaven… or Hell? (pdf)

We have previously studied social and personal uses of camera phones, and the opportunities that location based image collections afford. We are currently building and evaluating a system that brings these aspects together. This system utilizes and exposes in various ways location data for camera-phone photos.

One of the researchers is Mor Naaman, and you can see from his list of Papers and Publications that he takes the topics of contextual metadata (pdf), tagging (pdf) and geo-referenced photos pretty seriously. He even wrote his doctoral thesis on Leveraging Geo-Referenced Digital Photographs (pdf).

The other author of that paper researched uses of mobile phones with Hewlett-Packard, and brought some of that expertise to Yahoo. Mirjana Spasojevic is was a Senior Design Researcher at the Yahoo! Mobile Business Unit.

In addition to looking at design and deployments of mobile phones, she’s also studied ubiquitous computing technologies. One of her efforts at Yahoo! involves a global mobile study evaluating needs of mobile phone users. At the latest PICS 2006: Workshop on Pervasive Image Capture and Sharing (she was one of the organizers of the conference), an indepth look at ZoneTag was presented:

ZoneTag: Designing Context-Aware Mobile Media Capture to Increase Participation

ZoneTag is a rich mobile client that enables context-aware upload of photographs from cameraphones. In addition to automatically supplying location metadata for each photograph, ZoneTag supports media annotation via context-based tag suggestions. Sources for tag suggestions include past tags from the user, the user’s social network, and the public, as well as names of real world entities such as restaurants, events, and venues near the user’s location. A seamless interface makes it easy to assign tags to a photo, forming the basis for a richer personal media retrieval and organization system. We believe that lowering the barriers to tagging has great potential for effective retrieval.

She’s also written (or co-authored) a number of articles and papers on camera phone use (pdf) and the implications of camera phone use (Word Doc)

The research that these two have conducted (along with other researchers) provides some interesting insights for people who are looking at the future of mobile search, local search, and visual search. Getting a better understanding of how people are using mobile phones with cameras, and some insight into how images they create might be captured and organized and searched is helpful. Zonetag is just one possible use of that kind of knowledge.

ps. Funny stuff, Yuri. Thanks. I’m honored.

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10 thoughts on “Yahoo’s Studies on Mobile Camera Phones and Geo-Referencing Images”

  1. Well, I, for one, may note that a mobile phone should be used to take a photo to be directed to the closest local pizza shop. Hooked by local search I am.

    P.S. Psst. I was serious 😉 My pleasure.

  2. Just backs up the fact that mobile creates a new context and will be a very different interface between users and data. Very interesting post, but curious – without reading all the linked material did GPS come into this at all?

    The social aspect of POI-related services could prove to be worth watching in coming years. I know Nokia are starting to put GPS into their phones (already a feature State-side?).

  3. Hi Richard,

    Zonetag can identify either the GPS location of the phone making the call, or the location of the cell tower being used. The first would give a more exact location, but the second would be a rough, but close indication of where the image came from.

    A user of the system can also add tags to the images, and some tags to be used may be suggested to them, some of which would also indicate locations. An external GPS unit can be used with this system, too (example)


    It sounds like this Zonetag system might be able to help you find the closest pizza shop. One of the tag categories you are presented when uploading an image to Flickr, where suggestions are made for tags, include “Eats” which is a list of nearby restaurants.

    Thanks, again for that post. 🙂

  4. Well, this system (Zonetag) seems to be presented as a system to tag pictures better, not as the one to find the closest shops from a picture. I’d imagine finding the closest shops, restraunts and cafes by making a picture of the street (or a shop to capture its name) may be a good way not only helpful in finding the closest places of interest, but to help those, who got lost in an unknown city.

    As you can see, there may be many more uses to this great system than easy photo tagging.

  5. I think that there’s a lot of potential here, too.

    You do have to start somewhere with something like this, and I think a decision was made that tagging images with geographic information was a good place to start. I’m excited over the possibility of seeing pictures of the same areas taken over time by different people.

    The more people who are involved, the easier it may become for uses like the ones that you suggest to come about.

  6. Yeah, I guess there are certain limits to make any innovations spread (including Google). Perhaps, indeed, the main problem with the new things is not how they work and whether they work, but to distribute them (just remember what stops local search from being popular).

  7. Hi Gloucestershire,

    It’s been two years, which might feel like a lifetime when you’re waiting for something like this to appear, and might feel like a blink of an eye when you’re looking back in time.

    I like that they are doing this in the iPhone and the Android phones. I suspect that within a couple of years, we will see this as a pretty common feature on most camera phones.


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