free html hit counter Why Color Matters: Augmented Reality And Nuanced Social Graphs May Finally Come of Age - John Battelle's Search Blog

Why Color Matters: Augmented Reality And Nuanced Social Graphs May Finally Come of Age

By - March 23, 2011

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I read with interest about Color, a new social photo app that was much in the news today. The main angle of coverage was the size of the pre-revenue company’s funding – $41 million from Sequoia and Bain. Hell, the company isn’t just pre-revenue, it’s pre-product….at least for now. Tomorrow the actual product launches.

If it works as advertised, it may well be the first truly execution of augmented reality that truly scales.

I for one hope it works.

The service’s founder, Bill Nguyen, is the real deal. He has a particular ability to see around corners, and is a veteran of more than half a dozen startups. So why am I fired up about Color’s service? Because I think it bridges an important gap in how we use the web today. And please know that my definition of “the web” is in no way limited to “PC based HTML”. When I say web, I mean the digital platform through which we leverage our lives.

OK, now that we’ve clarified that, what does Color actually *do*? Well, let me explain it as best I can, based on a great piece here by Bruce Upbin (OK and this piece and this one too).

In short, Colors combines the public social graph and instant sharing of Twitter with the “capture the moment” feel of an Instagram or Path. But the real twist is in the service’s approach to location. To my mind, Colors has the opportunity to be the first breakout application fueled by the concept of “augmented reality.”

Now, let me back up and remind readers of my oft-repeated 2010 maxim: Location is the most important signal to erupt from the Internet since search.

OK, that said, what Colors does is offer up a visual public timeline of any given location, in real time. Every single image captured at any given location is instantly “placed” at that location, forever, and is served up as an artifact of that location to anyone using the Colors application.

Put your brain to that idea for a second, and you realize this is one of those ideas that is both A/ Ridiculously huge and B/ Ridiculously obvious in retrospect. And pretty much every idea that passes those two tests only has to pass a third to Be Really Big. That third test? Execution.

Wait Battelle, you may be saying. What are you on about? I’m not getting it?!

In short, if Color is used by a statistically significant percentage of folks, nearly every location that matters on earth will soon be draped in an ever-growing tapestry of visual cloth, one that no doubt will also garner commentary, narrative structure, social graph meaning, and plasticity of interpretation. Imagine if Color – and the fundaments which allow its existence – had existed for the past 100 years. Imagine what Color might have revealed during the Kennedy assassination, or the recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, or hell, the Rodney King beating?

But that’s just the stuff that’s important to us all. What Color really augurs is the ability to understand our shared sense of place over time – and that alone is mind-bendingly powerful. Back in 2008 I was struck with a similar concept, which at FM we turned into Crowdfire – a fleeting, early antecedent to the Color concept focused on music and festivals.

To me the key here is plasticity. By that I mean the ability to bend the concept of “social graph” beyond the inflexible “one ring to rule them all” model of Facebook to a more nuanced set of people you might care about in the context of place or moment. I love these kinds of steps forward, because it’s just so damn clear we need them.

Trust me on this. If Colors fails, it will be due to execution, and someone else will get it right. Because the world wants and needs this, and the time is now. (By the way, I’m not encouraged by the website, which focuses on group sharing and such. I think the service is way bigger than that. But I guess you have to start somewhere…)

Oh, and note to Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare: If you don’t get this feature into your service, pronto, you will more likely than not be rueing the day Color launched.


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43 thoughts on “Why Color Matters: Augmented Reality And Nuanced Social Graphs May Finally Come of Age

  1. Brian says:

    Wow — if I understand it correctly, it’s like the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, but for physical locations instead of websites.

    Stores and restaurants are a good place to start because Color solves more real-world issues than nascent services like ShopKick, from watching how buyers interact with store displays to security.

    I could see exceptional uses at points of interest like Times Square, Las Vegas or even The Standard Hotel in Los Angeles. I wonder if services like Color will trigger a secondary market in the Internet of Things, like installations of fixed Internet-enabled cameras in public places to ensure a normalized stream of Color content.

  2. Q says:

    How will they make money?

  3. Raheel says:

    dead on. nice post.

  4. Bruce Campbell says:

    This is really awesome. One more step into the worlds of sci-fi, as with Arthur C. Clarke’s *Light of Other Days* and @Doctorow’s *Down & Out in the Magic KIngdom*.

    In five year’s time, we won’t know how we did without this. Just like LBS was being thought of in the early days of 2.5G, but the tech wasn’t there, this actually HAS the tech in place, albeit clumsy and techy, compared to what it might be like.

    How soon before this is simply a wearable appliance, and we have a track of everything we’ve done, ever since we adopted the tech? No more missing keys, or credit cards left at the coffee shop. Well, not that we’ll be having that stuff anymore. It won’t be necessary. Talking about it moves the general population in the right direction, anyway.

    There are certainly plenty of things possible for social control with this evolution. Owning the ‘Net has never been more crucial, or more dangerous.

  5. Dennis says:

    A tapestry of public images associated to locations certainly makes sense but there are some big ifs on achieving this.

    Color received more money then Google which is probably thanks to the lovely bubble we’re living in. After all, Google already had tons of rabid fans and a clearly winning service. Color has neither so this investment is clearly a gamble on the execution prowess of the start up team.

    Even if they execute well there is still the manner of how many people will regularly shoot pictures with this app. To illustrate, I run photo blogs for my sons so my family can stay up to date and sometimes days go by without me updating (until my mother pressures me in to action again). I’m skeptical about this (but I was skeptical about twitter too).

    I’m most excited about the elastic network concept of the app though.

    None of the current social networks discriminate my contacts accurately on how involved they are in my life _today_. Nailing an accurate representation of my true social contacts without me actually having to friend somebody… that sounds huge to me.

  6. Dag-Erling says:

    Never mind that it’s probably illegal in most civilized countries… Pesky little thing called “invasion of privacy”.

  7. Robin says:

    I would like to try it out, but cannot find it on the Android Market. The link on the color.com website only links to the home page of the Android Market, not to the app. A bit of a fail, if you ask me!

    Bad execution?

  8. Tim Reha says:

    Hey John,

    Interesting article on Color. I tried it on iPad2 and was hoping for a bit more sizzle but they do not have an implementation yet on that form factor.

    Photosynth came out of the UW and approaches this but on a different level. I feel that these AR, geo-tagged mobile apps have a chance now that chipsets and cameras are finally getting usable. With photos being the primary asset on social media besides text it is obvious that one play in this space will get it right and get taken out by a bigger player.

    We are all watching and some are in the lab tooling up. Cheers, Tim

  9. gzino says:

    Exciting but critical questions:

    1. Agree re: location as a signal, but what else will Color do to manage signal to noise? Some mix of crowdsourced and professional curation?

    2. Not clear on the business model? I’m not a fan of a model in which signal to noise gets distorted when people pay for certain photos and videos to be promoted in the stream.

    3. APIs and integrations? Import/export of images between Color and my social networks, ability to post to multiple social nets and Color in one transaction, APIs for professional curation and third party apps on top of the streams?

  10. Ryan says:

    Great post! Love the line: “What Color really augurs is the ability to understand our shared sense of place over time – and that alone is mind-bendingly powerful.”

  11. Tom says:

    From the App desc:
    Use Color to take photos and videos with other people who have Androids or iPhones within 150 ft to create a group album.

    For parties, play dates, lunch? You get their photos, they get yours. Share any album with Twitter and Facebook.

    Built-in SMS and text messaging keeps the conversation going. Color is a social network for your Android.

  12. shivastears says:

    Did you read Super Sad True Love Story. Shteyngart should also get credit for seeing around corners, too.

  13. Chris says:

    I love the concept, but I think 150ft is to restrictive. I think 1000ft would make it more fun.

  14. Sundar Krishnamurthy says:

    But this is just a feature of any photo sharing app. Rather than pivot (Excel pivot, not the valley version) on user connections, this hinges upon a location.

    Facebook or anyone can easily add that and diminish the value quickly.

    I have enormous respect for Bill Nguyen and I feel there is more than what meets the eye–look forward to learning more.

  15. jeremyk says:

    One overarching point that is missing is the fact this isn’t worth $41M in the long haul. It totally misses any sort of revenue strategy and regardless of the fact it has a heavy coolness factor, Facebook (and others) have the ability to build similar for a lot less and they already have users, locations, and a ton of data. In the end we are talking about $41M that went into something that could have been built for less than $1M and probably would have the same level of attention.

    Cool, yes. Inventive, yes. Easily copied, yes. $41M, hell no.

  16. I’m just starting to use it, so will have some thoughts soon, but as I just told @fredwilson: “the key to all of this i think… is instrumentation. filtering, collective intelligence.”
    In other words, noise will be a problem, so finding Signal in context will be key

  17. Peter says:

    I can’t help but feel there’s a little too much hype in this blog post.

    Location-placed entities have been around for awhile. Yes, maybe the execution hasn’t been right but why is this concept being mentioned as if Color was the first to discover. They aren’t. They are just getting so much press because of the amount of money behind them.

    Many apps have attempted this same/similar concept: Pictures attached to places. Listings attached to places. Wikipedia entries attached to places. Tweets tied to a place. It was the logical step for location apps.

    Perhaps I cannot grok what Color brings to the table just yet. I’m sure they have something in mind that will be new and innovative… just like everyone else who tried entering this arena. I just think that the innovation here isn’t really innovation.. at least I don’t hope so, otherwise it’s likely to bust.

  18. Jason Small says:

    This may be one of my favorite articles and favorite products – ever. John, the description of the product/application for usage – and ‘mind bending’ power of something that addresses so many dynamic factors in space, time, social experience, and imagery is so big I don’t even think the creators realize the total sum of it’s power.

    Amazing. These are the inventions that make digital/social/mobile exciting. You are so right – if it fails, it’s execution. Not concept.

  19. han says:

    I have been for a few years working on something in the spirit u describe

    Sidlr aims to create engaging conversations augmented with micro-updates, with a revenue model based on e-commerce/store

    digital platform through which we leverage our lives? YES

    not so much KODAK moment but using intelligent text and media inputs to augment personal ‘lifestreams’

    location is of course a key information, but only one of many, including emotions, topics.
    I term it a ‘weave’ which is timelines made by twining 2 strands/persons.

    Let’s see if my execution works. and yes we must move away the “one ring to rule them all”
    … so even if Sidlr’s not it, I believe someone will scratch this itch

    sorry if it all sounds like a cheap plug

  20. Noah Parsons says:

    Maybe I don’t get it, but doesn’t flickr already to this? http://www.flickr.com/map/

    Granted, execution could be a bit better and Yahoo! is missing the boat by not creating a killer mobile flickr app, but this concept of geo-locating photos is not a new one.

    As you say, execution is everything and I 100% believe that. Color could certainly eat flickr’s lunch (and facebook’s, and google’s, and instagram’s, etc.)

    But, revolutionary this is not.

  21. Zec says:

    Well,

    Glad to read this article so I can have different perspective on Color.com

    But,
    One thing came to my mind.

    Doesn’t Google had opportunity to do this with gMaps+Panoramio and different mashups ?

    Even they failed to make it mass appeal. I have no clue how this ambitious goal Color will achive.

  22. Bryan says:

    John, you’ve been nothing but a cheerleader for the latest internet bubble.

    Color is worthless. Sorry.

  23. John says:

    @Bryan, OK, you can call me a cheerleader, I’ll take that. And maybe Color isn’t the service I wish it were, I’m already having issues updating it and using it. But my point is that what it represents is huge. And I’ll stand by that.

  24. Dave says:

    95% of the comments on the Android Market are very, very negative. Most ratings are 1 out of 5 stars for just how horrible the Android app is.

    I like the concept, but couldn’t Facebook adopt this idea in to its Places Check-In system? So could Foursquare. Then I don’t need yet another “social” app.

  25. Bruce says:

    Nice post John. As a news site we are already raring to go with Color’s news API (in the works for later in the year). Fingers crossed, we should be able to push a button and pull up dozens of photos from a particular place or time or both and stitch them into a story or as a gallery or as a live feed to go with a live blog from, say, Macworld or CES or the SOTU. Can you imagine if fifteen congressmen with iPhones and Color were streaming from inside the capitol?

  26. John Dowdell says:

    re: “… or hell, the Rodney King beating?”

    We did have audio/video artifacts of the 100mph+ chase through residential streets, then the long standoff as King remained menacingly belligerent. But all that was publicized was the 20-second clip at the end.

    Having the media isn’t enough. It’s what you’re programmed with that counts.

    jd

  27. Kashif says:

    This like btinter (sp?) but for pictures.

  28. TitoP says:

    I can’t find the app in the Android market.

  29. Christopher says:

    1) The internet is already chock-full of geolocated and time-stamped photographs, and plenty of tools are available for collecting and viewing photographs around a particular location around a particular timeframe. The magical awesome database you envision has been around for almost a decade.

    2) In urban areas, the social value of this kind of thing dissolves. Just because we’re in the same GPS location, which is to say we might be in the same building, doesn’t mean we’re in the same “location” at all. I might as well be a million miles away from the folks one floor below and above me. Moreover, any given group of photos that share the same timestamp and the same GPS information will, I predict, rarely depict the same event, unless we are talking about hugely-populated and hugely-photographed events.

  30. Sue Reddel says:

    John, thanks for the article on Color. Story made the front page of the Chicago Tribune Business section today. I thought how ironic that the newspaper is covering this new technology.

    It will be interesting to see if it works and how many people will try it. I loaded it on my iPhone this morning. We’ll see.

  31. Jessi says:

    $41M only means that they are going to be expensive when Google, Facebook, Yahoo, or Microsoft acquires them. Sorry, it’s a one trick pony that requires critical mass to be successful, and they will likely get that either through immemse luck or being picked up.

  32. Karl says:

    The basic idea of color.com is cool – bringing people together in a spontaneous and fun way, based on a common experience (e.g. a local event) – just the execution is really, really poor. And from what Bill plans as an “enhancement”, things will get even worse.

    So, sorry to say, but the money for the color.com domain alone would have been enough as an investment to push this experiment out in the wild.

    There are other local social mobile apps like the stealth startup http://doimpromptu.com that take on a similar goal (“get together with friends and awesome others around you.”), but do a better job with less money: immediately after registration you’re starting with the full experience of checkins and events of your friends AND your friends of friends AND other event attendees – this never leaves you lonely and gives you enough interesting strangers to follow and expand your “real life social network”.

    Quite similar to color.com DoImpromptu learns over time with whom you’re usually hanging around, but also shows you people that visit the same events and locations as you do and that you’ve never been talking to before.

    And that’s where the user experience becomes really cool: seeing WHO is with you in the same location (not just a nameless pic), knowing WHERE and with WHOM else they usually go out, and where you can potentially MEET them again. That’s enough information to get an interestingly precise picture about this person.

    I’m looking forward to see who finally gets “local social mobile” right…

  33. Jeff Hester says:

    Color is truly useless unless you have a group of people, armed with iPhones/Droids AND with the Color app, AND the desire to actually use the app to snap and share photos.

    I agree with several of the other comments — the idea of a location-based social graph is already done. Geo-tagged images on Flickr do this, as do images included with Foursquare checkins.

    While Color has nuanced the experience, the execution leaves much to be desired (so far). Of course, people also scratched their heads when Twitter, Foursquare, etc. first hit the scene.

    I’m less excited about yet another app to use, but more optimistic about the promise of the concept.

  34. TC says:

    OK, that said, what Colors does is offer up a visual public timeline of any given location, in real time. Every single image captured at any given location is instantly “placed” at that location, forever, and is served up as an artifact of that location to anyone using the Colors application.

    GPS did this for photos before Color existed. The only improvement Color provides is overcoming the deficiency of GPS when we talk about more granular placement. Knowing whether one photo’s location is within 2 feet of another, and which direction, with GPS is bad. So the real novelty is finding out the relationship in space between 2 photos that doesn’t rely on GPS. So that’s all well in good, but wow, your post reads like it’s the second coming of Jesus.

  35. TC says:

    “OK, that said, what Colors does is offer up a visual public timeline of any given location, in real time. Every single image captured at any given location is instantly “placed” at that location, forever, and is served up as an artifact of that location to anyone using the Colors application.”

    GPS did this for photos before Color existed. The tapestry you talk about blanketing the world already exists — look at geo-tagged photos on Flickr.

    The improvement Color offers is overcoming the deficiency of GPS when we talk about more granular placement. Knowing whether one photo’s location is within 2 feet of another, and which direction, with GPS doesn’t work because accuracy is poor at that granularity. So the real novelty is finding out the relationship in space between 2 photos that doesn’t rely on GPS. So that’s all well in good, but wow, your post reads like it’s the second coming of Jesus.

  36. TC says:

    My last point shoudl have read:

    >>”OK, that said, what Colors does is offer up a visual public timeline of any given location, in real time. Every single image captured at any given location is instantly “placed” at that location, forever, and is served up as an artifact of that location to anyone using the Colors application.”

    GPS did this for photos before Color existed. The only improvement Color provides is overcoming the deficiency of GPS when we talk about more granular placement. Knowing whether one photo’s location is within 2 feet of another, and which direction, with GPS is bad. So the real novelty is finding out the relationship in space between 2 photos that doesn’t rely on GPS. So that’s all well in good, but wow, your post reads like it’s the second coming of Jesus.

  37. TC says:

    My last point shoudl have read:

    >> OK, that said, what Colors does is
    >> offer up a visual public timeline of
    >> any given location, in real time.
    >> Every single image captured at any
    >> given location is instantly “placed”
    >> at that location, forever, and is
    >> served up as an artifact of that
    >> location to anyone using the Colors >> application.

    GPS did this for photos before Color existed. The only improvement Color provides is overcoming the deficiency of GPS when we talk about more granular placement. Knowing whether one photo’s location is within 2 feet of another, and which direction, with GPS is bad. So the real novelty is finding out the relationship in space between 2 photos that doesn’t rely on GPS. So that’s all well in good, but wow, your post reads like it’s the second coming of Jesus.

  38. morgan says:

    “Sharing Content publicly with others from different locations is what this App is about,” the company says. ”If you find this objectionable, please consider not using our App or Site.”

    This statement is fine in regards to the App user – but has utter disregard for the subjects of location tagged images. Making the image taking process completely anonymous may protect the user, but at the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, opens up a host of issues relating to personal security and privacy for the unwitting subjects of such images. In its current manifestation, the App makers seem to have either no awareness of such issues or just don’t care.

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  40. Sergei says:

    Thanks for the interpretation; I knew there was more to this startup then met the eye.

    If they really DO do what you say they do (which they don’t do now but maybe down the road), this is quite the amazing concept.

    It would be truly a collaborative masterpiece of the human network, a collective point of view collaboration of all things in their space time continuums.

    The thing I read that I REALLY like is the fact it doesn’t really on incredibly shaky GPS satellite systems, and instead relies on the phones actual internal systems. Awesome.

  41. Shankara says:

    I think the domain name cost them $40 mil.

  42. Sunil says:

    I am amused by your commentary and especially your ending note,”Oh, and note to Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare: If you don’t get this feature into your service, pronto, you will more likely than not be rueing the day Colors launched.” Reading this article you’d think Color invented the art of Photography. I posted the following commentary on Fred Wilson’s AVC blog, but I thought I’d share this here also.

    Back in ’07 when my buddies and I started tinkering around with tools like Jena and languages like OWL-DL, we recognized the power of the semantic web and machine based reasoning to be able to expose the connections between things that would otherwise remain hidden to the naked eye. Hidden in massive social graphs like Facebook and Twitter, are billions of attributes about people, things and places that connect us. When we meet someone new, its often the things we have in common that attract us but the differences that ignite the flame of curiosity. Machines are now able to help us discern these subtleties in connections. Knowing what connects us and how is cool. But all connections aren’t created equal. Knowing that for example, my best friend and I are connected through hip-hop music is one thing. But learning that my best friend influences my hip-hop music purchasing decisions because I trust his taste in classic hip-hop music more than say 10,000 reviews from people I don’t really know or trust, well, that’s more interesting.

    Color, in essence, distills down Facebook and its massive social graph with a focus on photos. A lot of market research has shown that 2 of the top 5 things people do on most social networks is share photos and eyeball shared photos. So dispense with the textual nature of life-logging and use photos instead because pictures say a 1000 words. Not ground breaking. Color aggregates photos around physical locations — geo-caching photos. Not new. Color attempts to figure out where you are. GPS is inaccurate at best so in densely populated locations like New York, you can’t really tell if all the photos you’re seeing are pinned to the place you’re actually at or nearby. Does that matter if you are constructing a social graph of photo experiences centered around location? What happens if the happy smiley faces Color shows me at the restaurant that I’m near which presumably is supposed to influence me to gravitate to that restaurant, actually turns out to be photos of another restaurant nearby?

    What about noise? Increasingly we are inundated by services that allow us to express ourselves in volume but not necessarily in quality. In fact, the way we communicate is becoming increasingly distorted and lossy making us more malleable to bias. $41M for Color is certainly brow-raising. Perhaps they have weaved some cool story around photos + social influence + object recognition (like Google Goggles) to help investors part with their monies. Either way, Color is only pushing an envelope that was already set in motion by others before them. Wait till the hype dies down. Then lets see who’s pushing what social graph envelope.

  43. Omar says:

    Along these lines, last week’s San Francisco Chronicle’s iPhone App of the Week, Time Shutter San Francisco, lets you see the city 100 years ago, watch and make your own slide transitions between past and present, and share them. Whatwasthere.com does something similar using Google Street View. Colors starts with the now of the App, but others are already trying to work it further backwards into the past when things get really interesting.