RealTime IT News

Internet Media Meets Media Eggheads

Big thinkers at a University of California media lab will set their minds to work on problems that could make Yahoo better.

Yahoo! Research Labs, located in Berkeley, is slated to open its doors in August. It's billed as a collaboration between the University and the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Internet media company.

Engineers at the lab will focus on search technology and social and mobile media, among other things.

Marc Davis, a professor in UC's School of Information Management and Systems and director of the school's Garage Cinema Research program, will take a leave of absence in order to direct the lab.

At Garage Cinema Research and a sister organization, the UC Berkeley Center for New Media, students and faculty ponder how people interact with technology now and how they might want to do so in the future.

They're especially interested in the explosion of consumer-generated media via e-mail, cell phones, digital photography and video.

Davis and his colleagues have published papers on "Mobile Media Metadata for Mobile Imaging," and "Designing Systems That Direct Human Action." The work on mobile metadata, for example, could prevent tagging from devolving into uselessness.

For example, Yahoo's Flickr photo-sharing services let users apply tags, or keywords, to photos, so that other people looking for photos of something specific can search the tags to find them. But people can use whatever they want for the tag, making the service less useful the more random tags are applied. For example, a Flickr search for "soda" turns up photos featuring the beverage; but a search for "soda" returns mostly photos of landscapes.

Davis' group is working on technology that will automate the generation of metadata as it's created.

"Flickr has shown you can get people to add metadata," Davis said. "We want to connect people's descriptions together on the back end, so they can share in meaningful ways."

The partnership with Yahoo will let UC take its projects out of the ivory tower and down where the rubber meets the road. For example, a recent study of consumer cell phone use was one of the largest in the world; it involved 60 people.

"In academia, that's big news," Davis said. "What's going to be possible now is to be able to do scientific exploration and innovation on the scale of Yahoo. We can create prototypes and test them on hundreds of millions of users." The lab's projects may be launched through next.yahoo.com, the company's beta-testing site, or they may go live site-wide.

Usama Fayyad, senior vice president and chief data officer at Yahoo, said that the role of Yahoo! Research Labs is scientific rather than product-oriented, and the UC lab will maintain the pure research focus.

"We're doing [research] in areas that are fundamental to Yahoo, which are areas that happen to be poorly understood scientifically anyway," Fayyad said. "So, any understanding we gain will have a very large impact on our product. It's already happened in search and communities, and we hope this [partnership] will make it happen very quickly in a variety of areas."

Davis added, "Product and research will integrate on a new level. We're not making incremental changes to the product, but using the product to do research."

Yahoo! Research Labs have unveiled plenty of interesting services that dovetail with Garage Cinema Research, according to Gary Price, co-author of "The Invisible Web" and news editor for "Search Engine Watch," which, like internetnews.com is owned by Jupitermedia. "Yahoo Mindset was born out of the lab," he said.

"That builds on another product they've been offering for almost two years, Yahoo Smart Sort, available on Yahoo Shopping." Mindset lets searchers adjust results to tend toward either shopping or research. He added that Yahoo's Send to Phone and YQ were other good examples.

The agreement between town and gown includes clear guidelines for sharing the fruits of the research. Much of the intellectual property developed collaboratively will be shared, while there are criteria for determining for which projects Yahoo will have IP rights.

UC students will be able to join the Yahoo lab; the agreement also allows for students to become Yahoo employees while remaining in the academic program. Fayyad expects engineers and students to travel back and forth between the Yahoo campus and UC.

Davis' hire makes up for the brain drain created when Gary Flake, director of Yahoo Research Labs, left for MSN. Fayyad has taken over that role, as well as the mission of expanding Yahoo's research activities. He said more hires are in the works, as well as further partnerships with universities that will deposit research labs around the globe.