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4/30/2012
11:11 AM
Patrick Houston
Patrick Houston
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3 Examples: Visual Technologies Change The Rules

Businesses of all shapes and sizes will soon be held to a higher standard of customer experience as they try to sell products, or convey content of any kind.

Play with the picture embedded below. Then come back and read this. Done? Good. Now I can make my point more vividly and in fewer words: A major shift in the information economy is taking place--right before your eyes. Literally. Words, while still a mainstay, are being supplanted by an immersive, deeper, richer, and increasingly widespread visual language--one that includes, but also extends beyond, high-definition photos and video.

The implication: Businesses of all shapes and sizes are going to held to a higher standard of customer experience as they try to sell products, or convey content of any kind, for that matter. During the last few months I've seen a number of signposts all pointing in the same direction.

The new iPad with its retina display that touts a million more pixels than the highest of high-def TVs offers a viewing experience that will surely affect media consumption broadly. Pinterest's explosive popularity has been fueled by its emphasis on its catalog-like photos that are so engaging and easy to consume. And the Lytro camera, which debuted early this year, lets you change the focal point to any part of a photo, as many different times as you want--after the photo has been taken.

But in the last couple of weeks I've also encountered three new startup companies proffering exciting new capabilities that serve to slap an exclamation mark on the trend toward an information economy dominated by visuals.

Consider:

1. TourWrist. This two-year-old San Francisco startup created the panorama, or "pano," that you see here. TourWrist took the top $1 million prize for being named the "People's Choice" winner of the recently held Demo Spring 2012 launch competition.

Charles Armstrong, the company's 31-year-old founder, says the pano represents a "third medium" that goes beyond conventional fixed-field-of-view photos and video, primarily by using the accelerometers, magnetometers, and gyroscopes inside more and more mobile devices to let you determine your own literal point of view--up, down, left, right, in and out.

"The 'pano' puts the users in control, a dynamic that can't be undervalued," he says. "The visceral nature of that experience makes the memory of a moment much more vivid--and in a file size not much bigger than a digital photo."

And before you dismiss Armstrong as a sentimentalist, you should know that RE/MAX, the giant real estate agency company, is already deploying TourWrist to its 89,000 agents for virtual home tours, based on the knowledge that people are 75 percent more likely to buy a property from a realtor who provides a video listing. let alone something like a pano.

2. Arqball. Instead of a "pano," this two-year-old Charlottesville, Va., startup has come up with a "spin." Arqball processes a series of simultaneously taken pictures, partly on its free smartphone app and partly on its servers, to render an image that you can examine as though you're turning it in your hand.

Jason Lawrence, a 33-year-old computer science professor at the University of Virginia who co-founded Arqball, says he's producing images that previously cost upwards of $500 for a service to produce them for you, or several thousands of dollars to acquire systems to produce them yourself. "The most significant aspect of the technology is that it puts a new type of visualization in the hands of many more people," he told me.

Arqball is focusing on an obvious business application: "People that sell things on Web sites," Lawrence declares. As skeptical as I try to be about Arqball's prospects--it's a tiny startup with a business model based on sales of the rotating stage used to create its "spins"--I'm wowed by its potential. Think what this could do for online retailers, such as eBay, Amazon, or Best Buy.

3. Knoema. Founded by two Vlads--Vladimir Eskin and Vladimir Bougay--Knoema is to data what WordPress is to blogs. It's a self-proclaimed platform to find data, analyze it, and, most of all, to turn numbers into charts and graphs, whether you're comparing the output of oranges between Russia and India or creating something like the gallery of interactive charts African Development Bank Group created on the Knoema platform.

Along with providing access to more than 500 public data sets and hundreds of ready-to-use dashboards on various topics created by its users, Knoema lets you intelligently search for data--in a single place, rather than hunting and pecking through a Google query, Eskin says.

"Any company could use Knoema for most of their data needs--both accessing and visualization," Vlad Eskin wrote me in an email. "But Knoema is not a BI tool…The whole idea behind Knoema is to provide one platform for data access and all possible ways of mashing data across sources and push it for content creation and dissemination/sharing."

I can't recommend any of these companies as a means or method on which to offer a core corporate application, not just yet anyway. They're all too early in their development for you to determine their survival prospects. Even TourWrist, the one company that's showing more signs of maturity and sophistication, isn't even two and half two years old. It has received angel funding but has yet to be backed--and therefore validated--by serious venture capital investment.

More importantly, none of these three sport a business model that makes them much more than a "feature" that a large player like, say, an eBay or Amazon could develop or acquire.

But that doesn't make them any less indicative of an era when visuals rather than the written word will rule the information economy.

Patrick Houston is the co-founder of MediaArchiTechs. He is a former SVP for a new media startup, a GM at Yahoo, and editor-in-chief at CNET.com. He can be reached at patrick.houston@mediaarchitechs.com.

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