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Can Cambridge-based Ditto Labs, focused on analyzing pics and creating links, help social networks boost revenues?

Posted by Scott Kirsner  February 13, 2013 11:48 AM

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Two of the pioneers of online photo-sharing have raised seed funding for a new startup that's chasing a big opportunity: analyzing the pics you post on Facebook, Pinterest, and other social networks, and creating links to related content. Some of the links might be to supplemental info, like the Yelp reviews of a restaurant you ate at, and some might be paid for by advertisers, like StubHub pitching your friends on tickets to a Celtics game after you'd posted photos from the Garden. The Cambridge startup, Ditto Labs, was founded in 2012, and has already raised some seed funding from investors including Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the MIT Media Lab, and Richard Dale of Big Data Boston.

Ditto Labs founder David Rose, right, and chief technology officer Neil Mayle worked together on Opholio, one of the first services to make it easy for people to upload photos and create their own albums; the Boston company held several key patents around digital postcards and online photo-sharing, and was sold to a California acquirer in 2000. Now, Rose and Mayle are focused on photos as the main attraction of many social networking sites.

"On Facebook, everyone looks at each other's photos first," says Rose. "Far less frequently, they read the text. And even less frequently do they look at the ads in the sidebar. So what we're doing is taking the stream of photos, which represent people's passions and interests, and trying to make those photos actionable. Photos are basically implicit recommendations to your friends."

When you install theDitto Labs app on Facebook, you're giving it permission to examine the photos you post on Facebook. Right now, the app tries to identify logos and emblems in the photos, which might be a Nike swoosh on your sweatshirt, a Mickey Mouse face, or a Bruins hat. (Ditto hired a pair of machine vision experts with experience at Natick-based Cognex.) When a photo also includes information about a location, because you chose to let Facebook know you were at the Marriott in Maui, for instance, Ditto takes that into account, too. The Ditto app adds a comment below the photo with a link to a separate, annotated version of the pic. ("There may be a recommendation behind this photo," it reads.) That version might contain a link to buy related products on Amazon, to a Wikipedia article, to a ticket-selling site, or to Yelp reviews. Any of your friends can click to see that second version of the photo — even if they haven't installed the Ditto app yet.

The company just began an open beta test this week.

"This is a way of rethinking advertising," says Rose. "Instead of text ads in the sidebar, it's a way of getting peer-to-peer recommendations. In a utopian world, we think you'd get advice from your friends related to the things that they love, instead of ads you aren't interested in." And Ditto's president, Joshua Wachman, points out that the links that Ditto adds to photos aren't always trying to sell you something; often, they're just presenting extra information about what's in the picture.

Ditto can also show you information about which places and brands your friends most often post pictures of. And that data, Wachman observes, could be useful to companies interested in finding out what people are sharing on social networks — even if they're posting pictures that aren't accompanied by captions or text. (Most current social media analysis tools simply read the text, and so you'd need to write the word Starbucks for them to know you're talking about Starbucks. Ditto can tell just by looking for the Starbucks logo in a picture.)

Rose and Wachman are in New York this week meeting with several big consumer products companies. Both acknowledge that getting widespread adoption for Ditto as a tiny startup would be a Herculean task; more realistic, Wachman says, would be a partnership or acquisition by one of the social networks to help boost revenues by selling sponsored links within photos, or generating referral fees whenever an airline ticket is sold or a restaurant reservation made.

When last I wrote about Rose and Wachman, in February 2011, their startup Vitality had been acquired by Patrick Soon-Shiong, the richest man in Los Angeles and a minority owner of the LA Lakers. Vitality had designed an intelligent pill bottle that could remind people when it was time to take their medication, and track missed doses.

Below is a photo Rose posted from Zen Japanese Grill in Boston, annotated with links to Yelp reviews, directions, and the restaurant's phone number. Below that is a photo one of my Facebook friends posted of a cupcake. Ditto's image-recognition software spotted the Patriots logo on the icing, and created links to the Pats' Facebook page, recent YouTube videos, and merchandise on Amazon.



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Innovation and technology news that matters, on a new website from the Boston Globe, featuring Scott Kirsner and other original reporting.

About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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