Anyone else notice? Google search is unbelievably powerful—capable of finding anything—but Google’s search in Gmail is a keyword guessing game, a big attempt to remember some strange thing you said in a conversation three years ago just to find the right email thread. And if conversations are hard to find, emailed pictures are nearly impossible. It’s nearly impossible to search for an image you can’t already find.
Lost Photos is a Win/OSX app by SpaceInch, and it scratches an itch that Gmail doesn’t. You enter your username and password, and Lost Photos will dig through every old email you’ve got—which can take hours—and generate thumbnail previews of them all. Then you can save the photos, or share them on Facebook, Twitter, or even email them again with the click of a button.
"We had talked a lot about photos as memory triggers. But we’re also really interested in problems with email and how it can be improved," explains SpaceInch developer Josh Segall. "Email becomes this gigantic disorganized mass and we’re interested in ways to tame it."
I didn’t expect to find much in Lost Photos—as a member of the media, most images I receive are related to press releases—but as soon as I started the search, I was struck by memories that I hadn’t dusted off in years. Old jobs. Old friends. Totally unremarkable photos that I never bothered to save had found poignant context: time. Old Internet memes. Old corporate headshots. Old stories that once seemed so urgent to write that are nothing but old news today.
It was an onslaught of the random association, through the filter of some algorithm out of my control. And it was addictive enough that, though Lost Photos just launched, I could see so many powerful tweaks to the platform. The UI is cramped, relegating the pictures to one tiny line, as if it was designed for mobiles, not laptops. This doesn’t scale well to thousands of photos, and furthermore, it just isn’t as beautiful as it could be. Why not overload my screen, or at least stretch to fill a full 15 inches with my glory days kitsch?
There’s so much potential here for smarter AI, too. Categories of images from certain people, easily taggable by their email address, would offer a powerful way to cut through the noise. With email addresses, it’d be just one more step to pull up the old email a photo came from and respond to the conversation in blast from the past fashion. And face recognition software would be right at home here, sorting the people from places, and places from pets.
Eventually, I realize that I’m craving far too much out of a $2.99 app from a small collective of developers, but that these are backend-hungry design solutions that the Googles and Facebooks of the world could probably tackle in their sleep. Even still, I’m anxious to see how Lost Photos develops. As of right now, I can see and save all of my photos, but stacked several thousand high, they’re not fundamentally much easier to search through than they are on Gmail itself.
That said, this photo cataloging stuff? As email, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram continue to split my life’s visual story into smaller and smaller piles, the design and implementation of such tools will only become more important.