If you ever have a mystery image you need identified, Phil Yao's your man.
For the last nine weeks, I ran CNET's Picture of the Day challenge, posting a new photograph each day and tasking readers with writing in and guessing what they thought it was. I offered one weekly prize for people who got at least one right answer, and a grand prize -- a complete GoPro camera package -- for the person that got the most right throughout.
And may I tip my hat to Yao: over the nine weeks -- 63 mystery photos in all -- he got each and every one of them right. Was I surprised? Not really. Yao won the 2011 Picture of the Day challenge as well, correctly identifying 67 out of 70 last year.
Facing tough competition -- for the first six weeks, Yao was tied with two other players who were also perfect, and who came in second and third in 2011 and again this year -- he never faltered. Whether it was an easy picture that dozens and dozens of people got, or if it was the hardest of all, a photograph of a backdrop from the Cirque du Soleil show, "Iris," that just three people got right, at some point in the day, his e-mail would arrive with the right answer. I grew to count on it throughout my travels on Road Trip 2012.
In fairness, Yao represented a team of five scattered around the world: himself, Nolan Pollock, Tom Snyder, Daniel Garber, and Rupak Bhuyan. But that was kosher. There were no rules against this, and I know that other players were also submitting on behalf of teams.
How did they do it?
When I first began running the Picture of the Day challenge in 2009, I was quickly impressed with the skills of some of the people who began writing in each day with their submissions. Clearly, these people were masters at finding things online. But how did they do it?
I've communicated quite a lot with many of the best players in search of the answer. Here's what they've told me.
One of the hardest photos of all was of the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, in Jamestown, Calif., home to a working steam locomotive maintenance yard. I took the photo from in front of the museum's overflow parking lot, and there was little to go on. But Yao got it. Here's what he told me:
"The railroad axles at the entrance led nowhere in my search, so I focused on the train," Yao wrote me. "Two letters were not blurred (AY, presumably part of "RAILWAY") so that gave me a sense of the spacing and look of the letters. The top of the train also had some distinctive bumps. Found a train car that looked quite similar (though not necessarily the same train as in the picture) and from there on out it was Google Maps until I found the parking lot."
Another very difficult one was the "Iris" backdrop. For this one, Yao wrote that:
Did a number of searches on Flickr ("NYC backdrop theater California," "urban backdrop stage," etc.), but they all came up short. We encountered hundreds of city backdrops, and after a few hours of fruitless wandering, we really felt like giving up. However, my friend Nolan (Pollock) kept pushing, and he searched through some reviews of theater performances that he thought would be popular or unique in California. Reading a review about Cirque du Soleil's "Iris" show, Nolan came across a line that mentioned acrobats bouncing on trampolines in front of neon signs in NYC. Upon seeing a picture of figures climbing a "HOTEL" sign in front of darkening city, Nolan peered closer -- although he saw only fragments of the backdrop behind other stage props, he was still able to identify it as the correct backdrop.
A third extremely difficult one was of the airstrip that once upon a time served those coming in and out of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Calif. Taken from the hill above, the airstrip is almost invisible, especially with the ocean dominating the picture behind it. But Yao was undeterred:
I had only been to the West Coast once (and it was only for a day, in San Francisco), so I was quite baffled by this seemingly random expanse of yellow grass. Focusing on the grass, the roads, and the ocean, I searched and searched, but came up with nothing. Finally, after brute forcing "California dry grass" through Flickr's search engine (try page thirty-something), I found a view of San Simeon State Park that looked similar. It seemed a bit unusual for an answer, so I looked for nearby sites that were more notable. I came across William Randolph Hearst's estate, and I recalled in my mind vague memories of "Xanadu" in "Citizen Kane," which was modeled off of Hearst's estate. I saw in my mind that zebras would look quite at home in this landscape (in fact, we had searched "California savannah" a number of times). Although I had no pictures that made me 100 percent sure this was correct, I went forward with it, and luckily it was right.
Yao said that he and his friends attacked each day's challenge "with a great deal of enthusiasm. We would discuss the pictures by email, and we would improve our understanding of the pictures through these discussions. For example, Nolan recognized a certain structure as being a radar station, and my friend Daniel Garber recognized that one structure was not an observatory, but rather a nuclear power plant. This helped narrow down searches a lot. My other friend Rupak had an insight that a certain building was related to Coca-Cola, rather than being a tribute to the Titanic (as some of us had thought). Multiple perspectives gave us a strong basis to tackle all types of pictures....
"The hardest ones always required some brute force, and we would pore through pages of images on Flickr and Google. When Mount St. Mary was the picture of the day, my friend Tom focused on the bell tower, scouring through related images. After a while, he realized that the bell tower looked like it belonged to a California mission, except that the buildings surrounding it didn't quite seem to fit that description. It was then that he had an idea that perhaps the buildings in the picture were part of a Catholic college, so he pulled up Wikipedia's page for Catholic colleges and went through each college one by one until he came across Mount St. Mary."
One very hard picture -- which many people got wrong -- was the giant Solana solar power generation station in Gila Bend, Ariz. A player named Nancy, who was one of the top-three finishers this year and last, wrote me that, "For this pic it came down to Nevada Solar One and Solana. The other solar field troughs I looked at didn't match so I ruled them out quickly. Both Nevada Solar One and Solana had similar troughs, chain link fences and mountains. What did it for me was the power lines and the distance of the mountains. The power line towers in Nevada looked different than the ones in the pic. Also, I grew up in Phoenix and have driven through Gila Bend on the way to San Diego a few times and it just 'felt' like the Gila Bend area with the mountains in the distance. The mountains at Nevada Solar One in Boulder City, Nev. seemed closer in."
Nancy was also one of the people who correctly guessed the June 18 challenge -- "Thunderdome," at the Burning Man festival (a photo I took a couple years earlier). She wrote that, "I knew that it was Thunderdome right away because I saw the movie ('Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome'). Then I had to figure out where it was. I ruled out Burning Man in Nevada because I knew that was a few months away. I found out the Thunderdome was a moving event and it had recently been in Arizona. I couldn't find any pics to corroborate it, though. Then I discovered that there was an improv group in San Francisco called 'Thunderdome.' I actually called the theater where they performed and asked them to describe the set. I said, "Is it an actual Thunderdome or is that just the concept?" They said it wasn't an actual Thunderdome. I was relegated to just submitting the answer as 'Thunderdome at Burning Man' and to my surprise that's exactly what the solution was."
There's little question that the top players in the contest spent more time trying to solve the daily challenges than most people could commit. And folks like Yao had help. Still, many of the photographs were extremely difficult to identify, and as the person running the contest, I never ceased to be impressed by what the regular players were able to achieve. That the winner and other top-three players were the same this year as last is testament to their particular skills -- mastery of Google, image search, and a brute force approach that wouldn't let them miss.