As if in response to recent moves in visual search by Microsoft's Bing team, Google Nov. 17 launched Google Image Swirl from Google Labs. Google Image Swirl shows sets of animated image clusters that borrow from the graphical representation of Google's Wonder Wheel view of related search results.
Google Image Swirl renders similar images in stacks on a Web page, not unlike the concept of a set of photos in a user's hand. Though instead of flipping through them, the user clicks on a stack on the Web page, and a wheel or "swirl" of the photos pops out.
In Google's example of a search for "Washington," the Google Image Swirl delivers different image groups, including President Washington, Denzel Washington, the Washington Monument, a map of Washington and the Capitol Building:
The real magic happens when you click on one of these image clusters. The images "swirl" into view, helping similar queries branch off, in a manner similar to the Google Wonder Wheel search representation option. I clicked on the Denzel Washington pic and saw:
Hovering over the images with the cursor shows the pixel dimensions of the image, as well as a link to the domain where the image lives on the Web. Users can refine their searches to find images that approach their goal of the best picture more closely by clicking on other subclusters.
I clicked on a George Washington pic and saw:
Google Image Swirl Product Manager Aparna Chennapragada told me Image Swirl leverages computer vision technologies created for Similar Images and Picasa Face Recognition to determine how images should be grouped together. The software also uses visual and textual features in the images to build a hierarchical tree of relationships between the top image results.
Google Image Swirl is limited, surfacing results for about 200,000 of the most popular queries -- for now. Chennapragada said she and her team will expand that number in the future, but declined to say what percentage of the total Google Images the search engine has indexed can be "swirled":
"It's a reasonable amount of them that we are comfortable with rolling out in this early version. We have plans to expand and we will listen to our users and hear what they say about the interface, as well as the technology and the image grouping."
I then mentioned that I could see Image Swirl playing well in some sort of augmented reality scenario, where the cluster swirls are overlaid on top of some sort of real-world information on a smartphone or some other mobile device. Chennapragada wouldn't comment on that beyond the stock statement that Google has a mission to organize the world's information.
However, she said the visual Web is exploding and that Google wants to be at the forefront of that. "We have to go beyond just relying on text." This is smart, especially because Microsoft Bing is chewing up the visual Webosphere with new innovation. Its Visual Search offering makes use of Silverlight for visually pleasing representation.
How will you know if Image Swirl will work for your query? When you start typing in the search box, available searches will auto-complete.
This is a nifty feature and a coup for Google from the graphical representation standpoint, not to mention the algorithmic indexing that goes on under the covers to group the pictures in stacks. Folks who do heavy image searching on Google should enjoy the heck out of this feature.
I told Chennapragada that the feature would be more useful if captions were supplied for each image, something to explain the image. She said Google would be beefing up the info associated with Image Swirl, but declined to say exactly how.
Will I use it again? I'm not sure. I don't use Wonder Wheel, so I'm not certain how useful I will find this feature beyond the completion of my testing for this blog post.
No word on when this will be complete for release to the general Google Image search engine -- where I'm guessing it will be made it available through a search option button similar to the way the Wonder Wheel is offered -- but Google Similar Images graduated from Google Labs in October after six months of testing.