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Seeking snapshots in search results

A picture search worth a thousand words? Digital image provider Corbis says a new service will let picture seekers find exactly what they were looking for online.

Digital image provider Corbis is betting that a picture is worth a thousand words, at least when it comes to searching its immense database of photo and art files.

The company plans to announce Monday that it has signed a deal with eVision to help customers sort through its holdings with a new type of search engine that compares the visual properties of picture files. The service is set to appear for the first time next week.

The deal is the latest move by a digital image rights holder to incorporate nascent technology for visual search and could provide key validation for the handful of companies developing it.

Seattle-based Corbis, which is backed by Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates, owns the second-largest collection of digital images in the world behind Getty Images.

The need to search for images in proprietary databases and on the Net has increasingly drawn attention amid an explosion of multimedia files on computer networks. Internet-based search engines such as Google typically offer image finders along with standard search features. But some industry experts don't see visual search replacing text-based services.

"Text-based search does a very good job at getting you information you want," said Danny Sullivan, editor for industry site SearchEngineWatch.com. "An image-oriented search engine is not necessarily an improvement over that.

"People would say we're visual creatures, and so a visual search will help you find what you wanted more quickly. The reality is text is actually visual. We take in text very quickly and we understand what text tell us."

Unlike traditional text-based searches, Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.-based eVision's technology uses mathematical formulas to simplify basic patterns within a picture file through a process known an automatic segmentation. The technique sorts out major identifying features within an image and then seeks a match among other image files. A similar technique, audio fingerprinting, has been put to use in technology that aims to identify audio files by their acoustic properties.

In addition to eVision, companies developing visual search technology include Virage, Convera, Idee and Ditto.

Still, many search engines rely on text-based tools to seek the name of the picture file or other textual data associated with an image.

This week, Google launched its own version of a visual search service, called Google Image Search. The tool, which has been available in a beta version since June, includes about 330 million images and also provides 44 international language versions. People can type in a word and then receive a host of images based on that request.

Corbis competitor Getty has developed a proprietary text-based search engine to help customers sort through its collection of more than 70 million images. In October, Getty relaunched its Web site, featuring an advanced text-based search engine that lets people search by color, shape, emotion and concept, such as happy, sad, wisdom and age.

Bud Albers, chief technology officer for Getty, said its search engine has about 50 to 60 key words that are applied to each image. The search engine "will narrow it down for you," Albers said. "It puts it into context."

eVision is betting that its services will surpass text-based methods. The company said its visual search technology provides a host of features that can't be easily matched using ordinary language. For instance, if a searcher wants to find a photo of a zebra that is looking to the right or left, eVision said its technology could produce those results.

Corbis said it would supply its collection of over 60,000 photography and art images to eVision for its online visual search engine. The company holds the rights to 65 million images, including 2.1 million available online.

The search engine will first be hosted on the eVision site next week and will appear on the Corbis site sometime early next year, according to eVision. Corbis declined to give a specific date for the search engine's launch.

eVision is hoping to initially target its search engine toward photographers, graphic designers, marketing companies and other creative groups, but it eventually aims to blend its search engine into operating systems, browsers and video camera chips. Besides Corbis, eVision said its other partners that use its technology are North Plains Systems and Canto.

"This is not only a major step for creative professionals," said Mat Malladi, eVision's CEO. "It will revolutionize search, and we have seen that there is an obvious need that's increasing in the markets."