Rick Boost
Jul 19, 2017

How technology is changing stock-image use

Getty Images says artifical intelligence, virtual reality, and mobile phones are changing what consumers want to see

Lars Ruecker/Getty Images
Lars Ruecker/Getty Images

Getty Images is one of the largest and most recognisable image supplier brands in the world. With over 400 million downloads last year spread across the editorial, advertorial, and consumer spectrum, the company tries to keep its finger on the pulse of visual trends to remain a premium go-to picture source.

The organisation’s dominant position in stock imagery is often attributed to Getty's aggressive acquisition of competing stock image outlets, and an extremely litigious attitude toward any infringement of their copyrights. Yet, speaking with Campaign, Asia vice-president Kumi Shimamoto relates that a huge amount of credit is due to persistent advances in both visual technology and audience research methods.

Image From The New Naivete Catalogue
Runner Of Art/Getty Images

“We try to anticipate what our customers are looking for,” Shimamoto explains. To do this, the company depends on more sophisticated analytical tools and and keyword logging—used in examining over one billion annual searches by consumers on their site.

“If there is a sudden boost in certain keywords that are being searched more than before, then we know that is a recent interest," Shimamoto said. "Especially if their search result is 0, that means that that's a demand that we currently can't fulfill.”

Though this might seem like a tiresome exercise of short-trend whack-a-mole, Shimamoto clarifies that these findings, more often than not, lead their team to long-term consumer fascinations. “We especially see evolution around the trends that are being impacted by technology and how we use technology.”

Girl In Green Hijab
Mikhaella Ismail/Getty Images

One standout example is VR. Previously maligned - along with 3D - as a flash in the pan fad; products like the Sony Playstation headset, the Oculus Rift, and the Samsung Gear, are making widespread adoption of virtual reality an actual reality.

Getty Images’ search data apparently showed that this exposure has led to a huge interest in visuals that create the illusion of being within an image’s environment. Or as Shimamoto puts it, “...a sense of virtuality.” In response, the company has pushed for the creation of more such content. At the 2016 Olympic Games, every single Getty Images’ photographer was kitted out with 360-degree camera equipment. Within the last year the company also founded an entire division based on VR and formed related partnerships with Google and Jaunt.

But Shimamoto believes that cutting edge machinery isn't fueling current visual trends for consumers as much as our humble everyday gadgets like mobile phones.

Taxi Pick Up In Hong Kong On A Rainy Morning
EschCollection/Getty Images

For instance, several years ago Getty Images’ researchers noticed that detailed images, such as flowers, were gaining increased attraction due to how close users were viewing them. “What makes images look good or appeal on a small monitor is different from when you're looking at a billboard,” she says.

That distinction, in Shimamoto’s opinion, could be of incredible importance to generating hits for any sponsored content.

“It used to be you'd read the title of the article first and then you might decide to look at it and then there might be an image. Now often the image leads the article when you're viewing it on your small phone,” she opines.

It is therefore no surprise that mobile phone use has been the force behind the launch of several new categories in Getty Images’ 2017 Visual Trends catalogue. For instance, ‘Unfiltered’ and ‘Global Neighbourhood’, reflect the rising trend of unpolished, mobile-driven urban photography, while the goofier ‘New Naivete’ range has unmistakable influences from meme culture and viral photos.

Shimamoto declares that while keywords like ‘Authenticity’, ‘Awkward’, and ‘Imperfection’ were up by a major 31% this year, the company’s numbers show that demand for traditional commercial photography - with beautiful lighting and perfect models - has been dying out for years:

“They started to go out of date. People lost interest in photos that look like they were created in a studio. People tend to be more interested in images that look real, authentic.”

Young dad using smartphone with little daughter
Tang Ming Tung/Getty Images

Shimamoto credits social media as a huge influence on this but also posits that the grittier, emotive style of online news outlets like Vice and the prevalence of viral video coverage has also formed a new aesthetic for young audiences to relate to what is trustworthy. “They're getting their news through the internet. They're seeing a lot of news that we'd call unfiltered. It's coming directly from someone.”

However, while proving successful so far, Getty Images plans for innovation go beyond tracking search data. A couple of new advancements Shimamoto lays out to us, may provide essential support for image providers to stay ahead of the curve.

Israeli company, PicScout, who specialise in visual-based insights are providing one such tool.

“We're developing a service where our customers can locate where their pictures are being used in how,” Shimamoto states. The technology will be able to track the entire lifecycle of an picture’s use across social media and advertising channels. Getty Images can then help advise customers on the potential longevity of certain image types.

Rafts Of Harvested Bamboo
Charles O'Rear/Getty Images

The other important area of study she mentions is artificial intelligence. To assist in machine learning Getty is supplying terabytes of visual data to AI developers. A recent case being the Neuroplus AI developed by Japanese company, NTT Data.

The results of this research, as Shimamoto describes, could have staggering potential for image vendors: “Once the AI is properly trained, if you put an image through it, it can tell you the strength of impact that the image will have and also how memorable it is, how long you will remember it afterwards.”

In a demonstrative head to head test of the AI’s capabilities, the Getty Images’ team scoured thousands of pictures, to decide on the most interesting and impactful image for the cover of the company’s annual photobook. Giving the Neuroplus system the same catalogue, it eerily chose the exact same photo.

“That was pretty shocking,” Shimamoto exclaims, “but in a nice way.”

Woman Admiring The View While Trekking
Martin Puddy/Getty Images

Technological advances like this should hopefully be able to cut down on time spent by clients searching the massive archives of image suppliers. But more intriguingly, it will lessen the restrictions of vague qualitative searches (e.g office meeting), and explore more expressive concepts.

“It’s really to help brands and assist marketing,” Shimamoto says, “You have a more educated choice in selecting an image to be used in marketing material.It will help them understand how people feel, what they're going to think when they see this image and it’s based on data.”

Asked if she’s worried that picture picking robots may put her out of the job, she answers:

“Well not me personally...yet!”

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