This AI Responds To Photography Like A Human Curator

This AI Responds To Photography Like A Human Curator

PSFK interviewed VSCO co-founder and CEO Joel Flory about the photo-sharing platform’s recent foray into artificial intelligence

Isabella Alimonti
  • 29 june 2017

At first glance, the most striking thing about VSCO has to do with what it lacks: there’s ample white space in its layout and, scrolling through a feed, you won’t be confronted with endless rows of uniform squares. But the photo-sharing platform also boasts an advanced suite of editing tools that allow you to skew, sharpen and color correct to just about any effect. Whatever your photo app can do, VSCO wants to do it better.

The next step of better adds artificial intelligence into the mix. VSCO has developed an AI called Ava, which employs machine learning and computer vision to look at art like a human. Instead of simply identifying objects in a photo, Ava picks up on the nuances of how we respond to imagery—whether the image conveys an emotion, like sadness, has a calming influence or tells a story of adventure. PSFK has seen recent examples of computers in the artistic sphere (including Nutella packaging designed by algorithm and initiatives to enable AI to compose music), but Ava’s approach to art is more contemplative than creative. VSCO’s staff curation team guided the AI’s knowledge to help app users discover what appeals to them.

We caught up with Joel Flory, VSCO co-founder and CEO, to talk about the newly-launched AI project and VSCO’s enduring commitment to providing a uniquely focused experience for its community.

For readers who might be less familiar with VSCO, could you tell us what defines your platform—what makes it different from other photography apps?

At its core, VSCO is a company for creators. We offer a free mobile app for iOS and Android, and it does a few things. The core provides users with powerful photo and editing tools: everything from facility to RAW. And the other side of it is there’s this vibrant community for discovery and innovation that is part of everything that we’ve done from the beginning.

VSCO—unlike other photo platforms that shall remain nameless—doesn’t use comments or likes. Could you talk about that decision, which is essentially the antithesis to what every other social platform is all about?

We like to think of it this way: what we’re building here is a way for someone to be a better creator—everything from the tools to the community to help foster that. It starts with a safe place for someone to express oneself and really begin a journey to becoming a better creator. So we look at everything from inspiration to education, a safe place to participate—and that is driven by the fact that there are no likes or comments. It’s something where you’re making things just to make, or making things to express how you feel or what you see around you.

The last part of it is around validation: we wanted to be very intentional that it’s not about how much validation you receive, but about the right to validation. Who are getting that from? How are you being recognized? A lot of that is being recognized by VSCO’s own curation team. That’s been the core of our community and how we like to focus on things here.

VSCO’s newest initiative brings you into the very of-the-moment realm of AI. What inspired you to get involved with this technology?

I’ll take one quick step back. There are two core pieces of technology that everything here at VSCO is built on or around. The first is on the image processing side of things: we call that technology SENS. That allows us to do all of the really amazing things we’re doing from a photo editing standpoint—everything that we’re doing with short-form video and a lot of exciting things in the future.

The second piece of technology is an underlying, proprietary AI technology that we call Ava, which is really about wanting VSCO to be this amazing personalized experience. Ava is something that we’ve been hard at work on for over 18 months, taking a look well beyond how machines interpret photos from a pure object recognition standpoint, but rather looking at it the way that the humans on our team—the curators on our team—look at art. They’re looking for artistic nuances, and a lot of times with photography you might talk about the story an image tells. It’s something very human to look at art that way.

We’re doing our best to train machines through our human curation team to look at it the same way that we are. This is resulting in a high-quality kind of thoughtfulness—highly subjective—but that’s what so unique. Because this was ultimately for a community of creators. Over 70% of the people [using VSCO] on a daily basis are making original stuff. So that’s really what this technology is built upon: to learn what inspires people, learn new ways to discover (which is what we just launched with Related Images) and how we can apply this technology, even more importantly, to human endeavors.

What will Ava do for VSCO users?

The first thing we have is Related Images, when you click on an image’s details. This is to think about how you would want to discover something in real life—so it’s not a platform that would show, say, every photo of a stapler, like you would Google Image Search for literal photos of a stapler. But if you wanted to go down this rabbit hole: you found a photo of a stapler, next thing you know there’s a photo of a desk, then the next thing you know there’s a series of aesthetics that embody that feeling or tonal range—this is really how we as humans discover and how we become inspired. We don’t always exactly know what we’re in for; we don’t always exactly know what we’ll be inspired by, so the real first push for us is to look at a point of discovery and inspiration. How can we improve upon that experience, over what other platforms do?

You mentioned that VSCO staff curators played an important role in Ava’s development. Could you talk about that process, and how these (human) curators will be working with Ava going forward?

It’s been a marriage, if you will, between our team of curators, our computer vision team and Ava. This is an ongoing relationship. It’s not, how can we scale machines to do more? It’s a thoughtful, intentional effort that we’re making into this space of machine learning and computer vision. It’s really a resource to our team and our community that we build off of, and it’s always learning. Ava is always learning both from our team as well as from how our community engages with content—what they like, what they don’t like, what they’re making, and even looking at bodies of work—so not what does a single image represent, but what does a body of work represent. A lot of times that’s how we as humans would look at an artist: there might be a piece of work that we’re really inspired by, but we might also look at a period of work from artist. What type of work did they create during this period? Ava is also looking at things like that.

Your VP of marketing Gene Paek spoke to Fast Company about Ava’s potential as a tool for brands, in addition to VSCO users. What do you envision for the brand space?

We’re trying to deliver an amazing experience for creators on our platform, and there’s a huge need for the content that’s being created on our platform elsewhere. Brands are always looking for ways to engage with authentic content—they’re looking for content to power campaigns on other platforms. Everything is not always about what’s most popular. It’s the same reason we don’t just show you the photos that have been looked at the most: it’s not how many comments or likes a photo has that tells its value. We see this great opportunity to power and leverage what our community is made of, and how Ava can look into that community and see who’s there and what type of work they’re creating, their bodies of work. We’re looking at exciting ways for brands to connect with culture creators on VSCO, and Ava is a key part of that.

In addition to CEO, you’re a VSCO co-founder. What’s your background, and what led you to start this company?

I was a professional photographer for a little over 10 years, and my cofounder Greg Lutze was an art director and creative director. We were always doing work for others and we thought, what if we just put our heads together and built something the way we’d want it to be built? Build the tools we would want as creators, the community we would want as creators and, ultimately, build a platform where someone could make a living. So this is something that was born out of passion, but Greg’s background directly aligned with what we built.

The difference now is, when we started, the community was a lot like me and today, 73% of the VSCO community is under the age of 25, with the fastest growing group being 13- to 17-year-olds. So clearly I am no longer the core demographic—as a father of two, and I’m no longer 13 to 17—but it’s really exciting to see. It’s the next generation of creators. It’s people coming of age, finding their voice, what it means for them to be who they are. The fact that photography was such a critical part of my identity and my coming of age makes it really exciting to help empower the next generation in the same way.


Lead Image: Redd Angelo | Unsplash

At first glance, the most striking thing about VSCO has to do with what it lacks: there’s ample white space in its layout and, scrolling through a feed, you won’t be confronted with endless rows of uniform squares. But the photo-sharing platform also boasts an advanced suite of editing tools that allow you to skew, sharpen and color correct to just about any effect. Whatever your photo app can do, VSCO wants to do it better.

+artificial intelligence
+Arts & Culture
+arts & culture
+Social Media

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