<videovortex> A Search Engine With a Real Eye for Videos

Sabine Niederer sabine at networkcultures.org
Wed Nov 19 15:54:18 CET 2008

best, sabine

A Search Engine With a Real Eye for Videos
Web video has transformed the way the Internet is used, but finding  
the exact clip you want can be incredibly hard. And it's no wonder,  
considering that sites like YouTube conduct their hunts by looking at  
a clip's "contextual metadata" -- tags, video title and description --  
and thus can often be misled by false information. For example, a  
homemade video about cooking might be inaccurately tagged with a  
popular search word like "Obama" so as to get more traction.

This week I tested VideoSurf.com, a site that claims to be the first  
to search videos by "seeing" images that appear in these videos. The  
company says its technology can analyze a clip's visual content, as  
well as its metadata -- especially when searching for people.  
VideoSurf has analyzed and categorized more than 12 billion visual  
moments on the Web to understand who the most important characters and  
scenes are in a video, and it uses this knowledge to sort clips  
according to relevancy.

Search results on VideoSurf spread out videos in a filmstrip-like  
format, distinguishing one scene from the next. Users can choose an  
option to show only faces, which helps if you're looking for a  
specific person in a long video or movie. And when looking at videos  
from certain sources, you can select a scene from the filmstrip and  
jump ahead to that scene rather than sit through the entire clip.

When it works, VideoSurf is one of those technologies that make you  
wonder why someone didn't think of it sooner. The site aggregates  
content from about 60 sources, including YouTube, CNN Video, Hulu,  
ESPN and Comedy Central, and a sorting tool weeds out unwanted results  
like the irksome slideshows that are labeled as videos. VideoSurf can  
find videos on all kinds of subjects, but it really shines when it  
finds well-known people.

But VideoSurf has some rough edges and doesn't always work as it  
should. In its defense, the site is still in its public beta, or  
trial, stage, and plans to be full-blown by early next year. Right  
now, one of its best features, the ability to jump ahead to specific  
scenes, works with video from only a handful of sources including  
YouTube, MetaCafe, DailyMotion and Google Video. Videos from Hulu.com  
confusingly allow jumping ahead only from certain screens.

Additionally, I came across a couple of videos that were no longer  
available, though they were listed in search results. And a  
customizable VideoSurf home page for users with accounts on the site  
saves searches but not specific clips; VideoSurf plans to fix this  
next week by adding a favorites page where users can store and share  
favorite videos with others.

Still, I really grew to like VideoSurf's clear way of displaying  
content that would be otherwise buried within videos. Rather than  
trying to guess a video's contents by looking at a single  
representative image, VideoSurf's filmstrip views showed me exactly  
what I'd be watching. In many cases, I viewed a video I might not have  
otherwise watched because its filmstrip showed shots of scenes that  
looked interesting.

On the left-hand side of the search-results page, VideoSurf users can  
narrow results according to Content Type, Categories and Video Sources  
to see just what they're looking for -- or, often more important, what  
they're not looking for. Content Type, for example, includes  
slideshows, Web series, full television episodes and full movies; a  
search can include only videos in a particular category (say,  
slideshows) or exclude that category altogether by unmarking the box  
beside it.

Most search-results pages include tiled still images at the top  
representing the characters in the videos. By selecting one of these  
characters, users can refine search results to show only videos with  
that character. For example, I typed the title of a favorite  
television show, "Brothers and Sisters," into the search box and saw  
the names and images of seven actors on the show at the top of the  
screen. I selected Sally Field and was redirected to results of videos  
featuring only the mother she plays on the show.

I used VideoSurf to search for Beyonce's "Single Ladies" music video,  
and then changed the date parameters to find only videos posted this  
week. This retrieved a Saturday Night Live skit in which the pop  
singer spoofs her own video with help from three men in tights --  
including Justin Timberlake. While the SNL skit ran, a list of related  
videos appeared in a column on the right, including clips of J.T.'s  
past SNL skits.

Occasionally, annotations appear on videos, but these come from the  
source -- not VideoSurf. If overlaid text appears on YouTube videos,  
it can be turned off using an icon in the bottom right of the YouTube  
screen. Video-sharing sites that use introductory pages such as pre- 
rolls before each video will still show those pages.

VideoSurf makes it easy to send specific clips of videos to friends. I  
did so by selecting a Share option and adjusting slide bars to trim  
the clip to start and end at scenes I preferred. Clips shared with  
friends via email are sent with the VideoSurf filmstrip, giving others  
the ability to also know what the video will include so that they,  
too, can discern whether or not they want to watch it.

Clips can be shared on social-networking sites like del.icio.us,  
MySpace and Facebook, though VideoSurf's helpful filmstrip didn't show  
up on these sites like it did in emails.

I also tested an add-on for the Mozilla Firefox browser called  
Greasemonkey that works with VideoSurf. When installed, this displays  
VideoSurf's helpful filmstrip beneath search results from Google  
Video, YouTube, Yahoo or CBS.com. Once installed, filmstrips  
illustrating important scenes appear along with the normal text  
results for videos, and some of the filmstrips enable jumping ahead to  
specific scenes. This somewhat techie Greasemonkey extension can save  
people the extra step of making a separate visit to VideoSurf.com to  
watch a specific clip.

VideoSurf uses smart technology that can save people the aggravation  
of watching videos that aren't what they appear to be. Since so much  
Web content now includes videos, a visual search tool that can better  
assess videos like VideoSurf is a good idea. When this site improves  
its now-flaky ability to jump ahead to specific scenes in videos, it  
will be even more valuable.

—Edited by Walter S. Mossberg
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