"We can find the very edge of a North Face logo or a tiny little Arsenal logo that a girl applied to her nail polish. We can find a partial, dark, out of focus Coke logo."
David Rose is the inventor of enchanted objects. Perhaps better described as a magician than a technologist—a more savory Willy Wonka, if you will—he’s developed a range of talking objects: pill bottles that tell you when you’ve skipped your medication, umbrellas that say whether it will rain today, and orbs that glow when something exciting is happening with your stock portfolio. Now he’s got another trick up his sleeve. Rose has begun casting spells on your photographs, deciphering patterns in them you never knew were there. (Did you know you only eat Häagen-Dazs ice cream after midnight? Did you know you only drink Mountain Dew when you’re wearing your North Face windbreaker?)
I’m chatting with Rose in a room encased by glass windows at the Cambridge Innovation Center, a shared office space that houses hundreds of startups that have mushroomed in the greater Boston area. Tech-speak abounds in this building—"let’s pivot," "we’re disruptive," "why not wireframe the idea?"—but Rose speaks an altogether different dialect, casually dropping words like "enchantment" and "magic" into our conversation. I’m beginning to wonder if I may have walked right through the looking glass.
Rose’s book, Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things, was published two weeks ago and many people are talking about his central premise: Rose argues that our laptops and smartphones, crammed full of apps, are distracting us from the world around us. Technology is now so driven by utility that there is no room left for wonder. Instead, Rose asks: Shouldn’t technology be everywhere, animating the things we use every day? Isn’t that what we’ve always imagined in our fantasies about magical worlds?
Rose believes that the Internet of things will be fully realized in the near future and he’s preparing for it right now by developing technology that analyzes photographs. Soon, Rose tells me, cameras will be everywhere, taking photos of everything. We’re already seeing this materializing. DropCam allows people to stream videos of their homes and the Narrative camera records everything you do in a day. The photos recorded by these devices are not attractive or artistic, but the metadata within them is stunning. "What if we all have recordings of our entire lives?" Rose asks. "What would that mean to memories? And relationships?"
It’s a provocative question and Rose thinks he has an answer.
He recently started a company called Ditto that analyzes photos in aggregate, identifying patterns within them. The richest source of publicly available photography comes from social media, which generates 1.8 billion images a day. Ditto's software is trained to scan for 2,500 details in each photo, ranging from brand logos to fabric patterns to Justin Bieber.
While the technology itself is versatile and designed to adapt to evolving uses of photographic tech, such as wearable cameras and home serveillance, for now Ditto is particularly useful to brands. Ditto works with companies to see how they are being represented in the vast firehose of pictures that flood the Internet every day. (You can have a glimpse of this firehose right here.)
While Amazon’s new Firefly phone allows users to snap a picture of a product to find out how much it would cost on Amazon, Rose tells me that the beauty of Ditto is that it requires no additional steps on the part of consumers. "What we’re really good at, which is different from what Amazon is doing, is just finding the organic stuff that is already being shared. We’re not asking anyone to change their behavior."
Ditto has been able to help brands like Vera Bradley, Kraft, and Budweiser identify connections that they would never have found on their own. For instance, it found that people put their Chobani yogurt in their car cupholders to eat it on the way to work. It found that beer drinking generally peaks at 11 p.m. but ice cream eating peaks at 1 a.m. It found that people are putting French’s mustard on their broccoli. (Ed note: yuck?)
"Through this digital ethnography, we’re able to see how people are using brands’ products in the wild," Rose tells me. Ditto produces competitive intelligence reports that show how many times a brand is seen over their competitor, narrowing this data by geography, gender, ethnicity and age. "Companies already know their market share but they don’t know how much pride or enthusiasm consumers have in their products," he says. These reports accurately map onto sales figures, Rose says. Ditto can preempt a brand’s quarterly earning report simply be seeing how widespread that brand can be seen in photos. The reports range from the fairly elemental to the highly detailed and cost companies between $2,000 and tens of thousands of dollars for the service.
While many brands are finding Ditto’s platform helpful, James McQuivey, a consumer products analyst at Forrester Research, says that Ditto will have an uphill battle convincing companies this technology can help their bottom line. "Brands will need to know whether they can use this information to move the needle enough to justify paying for it," says McQuivey. "Sure, it’s cool to get a report about the feeling that people are getting about your brand, but after one or two years of gathering this data, they will want to know how this helps them move product or get more subscribers. It is up to Ditto to push companies to be innovative with this data so that it does move the needle."
So far, it seems like the companies paying for the service think the return on their Ditto investment is trending in the right direction.
"All this is useful information when developing new brand positioning," one company's representative, who requested anonymity, says. "It tells you how your brand is seen by others and how it differs from other brands without being self-referencing and using leading questions."
Another person who has worked with Rose's startup and asked not to be named, agrees: "Ditto provides data that no one else can."
Rose says he's emboldened by the enthusiastic response from the companies he is working with and he is actively finding new ways to make Ditto even more valuable to them. But Rose’s real dreams for this technology are bigger than this. He believes that this technology has the power to teach us about how we live and help us improve our lives. It could show us how frequently we are moving our bodies and how much we are smiling or frowning. "Think about the public health signals it could give us," he says. "We could find patterns in smoking, our consumption of unhealthy foods and so many other things."
One inevitable question that arises from this technology is privacy. After all, as McQuivey points out, visual recognition technology was originally developed for military and law enforcement purposes to spot child pornography and other unsavory images on the Internet. It has since moved mainstream, helping companies like Facebook and Google tag people in photographs. But it is still worth considering whether or not consumers find it intrusive to have their photos so thoroughly analyzed.
"You could make the case that the consumer made a choice to post a selfie of himself on social media with a bottle of Captain Morgan," says McQuivey. "But the reality is that many people are unaware that when you post something in a public environment, you are subject to a different set of privacy laws."
Rose thinks about these questions a lot but, ultimately, he believes that consumers are now more comfortable than ever having their data in the public domain. "After all, Google has been able to read our email for a decade now and the only really useful thing they are able to do is give us more tailored ads," he says.
Suddenly, Rose shifts into future-gazing mode: I can tell that he’s back to imagining a world where enchanted objects surround us, recording every facet of our lives. "There are a lot of principles surrounding privacy," he says. "One is transparency, allowing you to interrogate what a company knows about you, but another good principle is absolution, that is, just being able to hit reset."
Products like Nest, Fitbit, or DropCam are already able to use our data to create a narrative about who we are, but Rose argues that we should really be able to erase our history and start again. "Products should make it easier for us to say, ‘Forget everything that you thought you knew about me, because I am going to live differently from now on.’"
[Image: Flickr user R. Halfpaap]