Visual search technology is still in its infancy, but a number of new start-ups are pushing the possibilities forward — the latest being Xcavator.

Riya’s Like launched recently (see our coverage), giving users a way of highlighting a shoe, or part of a shoe, and then look for similar shoes within its database of retail items — and so is helping with comparison shopping. You’ll notice, though, that Like operates in a controlled environment, allowing search within limited categories (bags, watches, shoes). Similarly, Swedish company, Polar Rose, just raised $5.1 million to help it launch its facial recognition, apparently due to be unveiled within the next couple of weeks.

Enter San Francisco’s Xcavator, which attacks visual search differently. It’s not open for general use yet, but VentureBeat got an early look. It will launch next year. Compared to other players, Xcavator lets you drill down further into a picture to find similar features. It claims it is getting closer to what the human eye/brain does. For example, if you’re looking for pictures with attributes similar to the Asian woman’s face (see above), Xcavator lets you circle it, and ignore her white shirt, arms and white background. See the YouTube demo below a demo of the technology. It finds pictures with other faces of Asian women (homing in on skin tone, hair color, and dark eyes and hair (it works for blondes too).


It also lets you click on unique points on a picture, like a butterfly’s wings, or petals of a daisy to find those specific features (see image at bottom, and related tour, which explains more).

The big question, though, is who will want to use this technology. We all have a favorite shirt or blouse that is getting old, and so we might upload a picture of it in an effort to find something that looks exactly the same. That seems like a lot of effort and its probably rare. It’s early days for this company, and its unclear how it can become a stand-alone company earning real revenue. Unlike Like, Xcavator is not crawling the entire Web to index pictures with the goal of becoming a destination site. Rather, it intends to liscense its technology to other companies, even to competitors, such as retail and fashion sites, but also to Riya, Yahoo, Google, or to companies with image software like Apple or Adobe. It’s also working with military agencies for intelligence work. It may work with professional photography sites like Getty Images to scan ad placements across the Web to check for copyright infringement.

The company has been self-funded for three years, and is based on technology built by Russian Lenny Kontsevich, PhD, who has researched his area for a decade. The total team is 10 people, split between SF and Moscow. It is looking to raise a round of venture capital.

The strength of this company is its ability to search vectors within a picture. If you select the entire picture of the Asian girl, for example, it will look for pictures with the white background, with dark hair, arms in similar positions. But it also allow for rotation of such vectors — finding picures with arms in slightly different angles, for example.

Xcavator’s parent company, Cognisign, has various projects up its sleeve. One site will focus on a younger demographic (girls aged 14 to 25) than Riya, because of the viral marketing possible with that age group. [Update: Xcavator has a placeholder name for site, but wants us to keep it confidential for now, for competitive reasons; we’ve removed screenshot too]. It will let users search, rank, and comment on images, and do it from their mobile phone. The seed/A round would be used to launch this project, says chief executive Bryan Calkins. We aren’t quite sure what would attract girls to this particular offering, but who are we to know.

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