Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Luminate aims to make photos more interactive

LOS ANGELES — Bob Lisbonne is out to change the way we look at online photos.

  • Bob Lisbonne, CEO of Luminate.

    Jefferson Graham, USA TODAY

    Bob Lisbonne, CEO of Luminate.

Jefferson Graham, USA TODAY

Bob Lisbonne, CEO of Luminate.

He is the CEO of Luminate, which today unveils a new name and a platform that turns online images from a static view into one with tabs for annotation and shopping information, and offers a way to share all or parts of an image on Facebook and Twitter as well as make comments.

"Images are the center of the Web," says Lisbonne. But until now, they didn't do anything. "We want to put little apps at the bottom of the image, so that there's interactivity, there's information, there's functionality … behind every image you see online."

Luminate, formerly known as Pixazza, also is positioned as a moneymaker for websites, allowing publishers to collect revenue by inserting Google ads on their sites.

The company, which launched in 2009, initially provided only shopping information when you clicked on a photo. It raised $17.7 million from several venture-capital firms, including August Capital and Google Ventures, the investor arm of online giant Google.

And it signed up many top-tier partners, including NBC's Access Hollywood website, CBS'Entertainment Tonight Online and The Insider, Yahoo's OMG, Hearst Magazine'sRedbook and House Beautiful websites, MSNBC and TV Guide's online site.

With shopping information alone, Luminate delivers ads seen by more than 150 million viewers monthly, which is triple where the company was at the beginning of the year. The addition of the new platform promises even stronger growth.

Here's how it works: If you went to teen gossip site Just Jared on Tuesday and moused over an image of Angelina Jolie, you could have learned how to buy similar sunglasses and sweater at Go there today, and there are also tabs for Facebook and Twitter comments, annotation by the publisher (perhaps a comment on Jolie's hairdo), the ability to share the picture (or even a portion), shopping info and a Google ad.

Having Luminate on a site "is a way for us to differentiate ourselves," says David McMahon, vice president of digital strategy for NBCUniversal TV Distribution. NBC'sAccess Hollywood can add custom tabs to every photo, which lets the publisher annotate any which way it chooses. "It makes every photo more engaging to our users."

Kristine Welker, chief revenue officer of Hearst Digital Media, says using the service is another way to profit from having its magazine content online.

"Delivering a compelling e-commerce experience, while providing advertisers with an innovative way to reach their core audience when they're most engaged, is exciting to us," she says.

Tim Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies, says Luminate's original idea was "interesting," but with the addition of "intelligence," it's even more so.

"If a picture is worth a thousand words, it's now worth even more," he says. "It's just a different approach to how we view images online and really extends the user experiences."

For Luminate to make money, it needs to sign up lots of partners and have those ad links showing up in millions of photos. Anyone with a website can sign up at and copy, cut and paste the Javascript code to their site.

Bill Maris, managing partner for Google Ventures, says "tagging" photos — identifying friends in pictures — is what built Facebook into the powerhouse it is today. He believes Luminate and its annotation, social-media and ad tabs can take online photo viewing to the next level.

"There are trillions of images online," he says. "Now there's a lot more you can do with it."

Google Ventures invested in Luminate, because "when we see someone trying to improve the life of a user, and there's an opportunity, we're there."

Lisbonne likens the inevitable evolution of photos online to that of wireless phones and how they've become personal computers. "A couple of years from now, when a consumer mouses over an image and nothing happens, they'll think that site is old-fashioned."

Lisbonne says the company name change was needed because it caused confusion. The original idea was to add "pizazz" to photos, but instead staffers ended up getting phone requests for pizza delivery.