Israeli Tech Powers The 90-Second Photo Book
AI and deep learning automatically edits, crops, enhances and orders users’ pictures into albums
US photo giant Shutterfly is using artificial intelligence developed in Israel to transform the way consumers engage with their photos. An algorithm developed by its R&D department in Haifa automatically sifts and edits a customer’s pictures into a photo book in a matter of seconds, saving them hours of hassle.
In a world where most photo collections live on smartphones, the company, with a $2 billion annual revenue, recognizes there is still a market for physical photo products. Mugs, bottles, canvas prints and the like can be easily customized. But taking a selection of images from somebody’s wedding, vacation, or family event, and being able to group them, order them and edit them, requires significant user time and energy. That’s where Shutterfly’s AI comes in.
“Over time, we started to take part in developing automatic photo books, creating the best stories out of thousands of pictures,” Roy Amir, Senior Director of Engineering at Shutterfly tells NoCamels. “We find the best way to crop the photo, to enhance the photo, and to make sure that we are maximizing the experience of the user, helping them to finish their creation or make it better.”
By analyzing the data of Shutterfly’s millions of customers, the AI-based algorithm understands which photos users will most enjoy and the direction they will take their uploaded images after a trip or event.
“These are multi-step hybrid algorithms that are leveraging deep learning,” says Eyal Cohen, Shutterfly-Haifa Site Leader and VP HR & Operations.
The algorithm, backed by advanced analytics, assesses the quality of photos and decides which, out of the hundreds uploaded by customers, will work best. Instead of consumers having to select photos themselves – a time-consuming process for many – they can enjoy books and photo products commemorating important events, trips, and life milestones almost instantly. In 90 seconds, the Shutterfly platform discerns optimal photo qualities, important people in the photo album, the centrality of images, and related photo products.
“Imagine you are going on a trip to Thailand and you take photos. Your photos are going to Google or Shutterfly if you are already a customer. The application is going to the pictures and understanding the quality of the photos. It is going to give the best crop to the product. Then, the algorithm will use it, the data will predict what product a customer wants to purchase, and it will pre-make photo products for them,” Cohen explains.
This algorithm is setting Shutterfly apart and driving the company’s growing revenues, Amir says. The Wall Street Journal reported that the company’s overall 2021 value was between $4 billion and $5 billion.
“The team in Haifa, together with New York and in collaboration with mobile folks, unified to one global team – something that is not very common in the industry. We were the leaders of the mobile transformation of Shutterfly. The revenue from mobile went from something like $10 million to $20 million annually to hundreds of millions of dollars annually,” Amir explains.
Haifa is home to R&D centers for IBM, Microsoft and other major corporations. In 2012, Shutterfly acquired Israeli startup Photoccino, which develops technologies for photo ranking, analysis, and organization, which helped to catalyze Shutterfly’s personalization capabilities and Israeli footprint. In 2015, it also acquired Israeli-based startup Mobixon, an application development company.
When Shutterfly directly merged with Israeli startups, it began to benefit from Israeli innovators with strong technological training from their time in the army and a fast-paced work ethic, Cohen says.
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“You know what others say about the Israeli Startup Nation: it’s all about the innovation, what we bring to the table. We’re working very fast. We boost the company fast-forward.”
Israeli “chutzpah” (grit) is allowing for company success, Amir tells NoCamels. “The combination of American corporate with innovators and entrepreneurial spirit from Israel is working very well.”
The Haifa team also places a premium on inclusivity, curiosity, and innovation to drive company initiatives. The headquarters employs one of Israel’s largest mobile teams and features a martech team (combining marketing and technology) that tackles Shutterfly initiatives head-on.
It is also home to a diverse range of 150 innovators from all backgrounds. “If you go into the FIFA soccer room or to the family room, you see Jews, Muslims, Christians, Russian Jews, and others just sitting together. We’re good friends. That is something that amazed me about this place. Even when things are getting much more tense in Gaza, and in general, the love and friendship in the office are something I have never experienced before,” Amir says.
The office also prides itself in fostering continued innovation, both in and out of the office. It hosts an annual in-company hackathon, a week-long event devoted to innovation and the presentation of more than 50 different Shutterfly-related ideas. Competition finalists are exposed to the company’s global management and initiatives from the five winners are added to its annual strategic plan.
“Innovation is coming internally. We see what other companies are doing and we do not just copy-paste. We are inventing our wheels by ourselves,” Cohen says. In its continuous cycle of innovation, the Haifa team will continue to grow its impact in 2022. Collaborating with Shutterfly’s successor company LifeTouch, for example, the company aims to connect the Shutterfly platform to a wide range of US students.
LifeTouch is responsible for school photos for over 40,000 US schools, taking more than 80 million photos. The Haifa team is working to combine its personalization algorithms with its services, helping consumers and schools choose the best photos and photo-based products.
Looking to the future, Amir says: “The site in Haifa is very deeply involved in the most important and strategic goal pillars of the company today, as well. For example, take custom design. We acquired a company called Spoonflower a little over a year ago. Now, we are going to offer – in the mobile app and the website – non-custom products and artistic things of designers.”
Ultimately, Cohen tells NoCamels, the Haifa team will continue to help Shutterfly be the giant it is today and improve the overall user experience. “We can be proud that we brought the fully automated book creation,” he says. “We are now rethinking the mobile platform and user experience deeply as part of the 2022 strategic plan to bring more visibility to our customers.”