Picture this: Real-time image search from all connected phones

It’s pretty easy to search and browse the photo library on your smartphone, but what if you could search for images on a friend’s phone? How about on millions of people’s smartphones? The concept sounds futuristic, but a research team at Rice University may bring the idea to the present day. The software for this creepy-sounding but potentially useful function is called Theia, and according to the GeekOSystem blog, the test app was initially developed for Google Android (s goog) smartphones.

The Rice team has a detailed paper explaining the distributed image search solution, which can quickly search for useful images, such as a theft in progress (see above) or clues to the location of an abduction, for example. The researchers suggest that by using Theia software on a handset in combination with a Theia server, specific data from images can be found faster and cheaper than through traditional means:

Through user studies, measurement studies, and field studies, we show that Theia reduces the cost per relevant photo by an average of 59%. It reduces the energy consumption of search by up to 55% and 81% compared to alternative strategies of executing entirely locally or entirely in the cloud. Search results from smartphones are obtained in seconds.

The research paper details the process, but in a nutshell, Theia can remotely search both the metadata (time and location) and the content of photos on cellphones that are registered with the Theia service. To speed up the process and ensure smartphones don’t waste too many CPU cycles searching for content, Theia uses a partitioned search approach: Photos that match certain search parameters initially are uploaded to Theia servers, where the offloaded data can be further searched in real time using more powerful cloud computing servers.

I can see some interesting and practical uses for this, but of course, privacy is a concern. The research team suggests mitigating that by allowing users to specify which photo folder on a smartphone is searchable through Theia. Essentially, users would opt-in by registering their phones with the service, then designating which photo gallery could be scanned.

Although it doesn’t offer a distributed search feature, the photo upload feature of Theia reminds me of the Google Plus Android (s goog) app, which already has an Instant Upload function. Every picture taken is immediately uploaded to a user’s Google Plus account, but isn’t shared by default. Instead, a user can decide to share it with the public or a specific group post-upload. Since the pics are already on Google’s servers, it could be easy to one day search through them, provided users allowed for that to happen.