The venerable Banff World Television Festival, and its upstart little sister, nextMEDIA, are hotbeds of ideas and deal-making for people in the media industry.
Where else can you rub shoulders with writers from House and Desperate Housewives, then catch an hour with Kim Cattrall telling all about Sex in the City?
But as it turns out, there were some gems this year for non-media professionals too.
One is the idea of "cloud computing" - which sounds academic, but is really pretty straightforward.
Remember the old days when people had to share a computer? Then computers got small and cheap, and we all had one. Or several.
But what if you wanted to control, say, 400 computers? You could try to steal their power online, but there are legal ramifications there. You could buy them, but that would be foolish if you only needed them for a short period of time Enter Seattle-based Amazon, which has gone from selling books and DVDs to, you guessed it, "clouds" of computers. According to Jeff Barr, who carries the lofty title Senior Web Services Evangelist at that company, since Amazon "eats its own dog food" by using variable amounts of computing, it figured there was an opportunity there to sell information-processing capacity online.
Barr says there are plenty of reasons a business might want direct access, on a pay-as-you-go basis, to metered access for storage, computing and messaging. You might be creating a marketing video, hosting a podcast, or, as is the case for New York-based Animoto, you might just suddenly get really, really, really popular.
Animoto is a website that takes your photos and music and produces what they call a fully customized, professionally produced widescreen video, complete with special effects. They claim the result has "the visual energy of a music video and the emotional impact of a movie trailer.”
And, get this, your video is free, at least for the 30-second version. That sounds a lot more bottom-line friendly than hiring a production company or even a film student.
The pulsating heart of Animoto is Cinematic Artificial Intelligence, a patented program that analyses your music and images "with the same sophisticated post-production skills and techniques that are used in television and film.”
Yes, you need an account, but it's free to sign up and the results are not half bad. Smart businesses are already using it to create freebie MTV-style promotional videos, then e-mailing them or sharing them on social and business networking sites.
According to their website, the founders of Animoto include veterans of the entertainment industry and have produced shows for MTV, Comedy Central, and ABC, studied music in London and played in indie rock bands in Seattle. And, indicative of their quirky sense of humor, they say they "plan to acquire Google next year."
Animoto was almost the victim of its own success, when it integrated itself into Facebook. This made it easy to share videos of the cat brushing its teeth with the world. Suddenly, Animoto became the darling of the Facebook crowd. According to one report, nearly 750,000 people signed up in three days, and at one point it was reportedly attracting 25,000 new users per hour.
Having neither the time nor the money to multiply its server capacity a hundredfold, Animoto rented cloud time on Amazon Web Services (AWS) computers, which Barr says typically cost 10 to 80 cents per computer per hour. Storage is typically priced at around 10 cents per gigabyte per month. There's no monthly minimum, and Barr claims Amazon bills AWS customers "from two cents to hundreds of thousands of dollars per month."
Another company availing itself of cloud computing is Toronto-based Idée Inc. Its goal is simple, but surprisingly difficult - to build a visual search engine for the internet.
Sure, you can go into Google Images and ask for a picture of a treehouse or a giant rabbit. But what if you want to track a particular image across the internet to see where it's turned up? That's a gnarly problem because the image may have been cropped, Photoshopped, or just plain defaced.
Idée's TinEye program will find images that match, even if somebody has painted a moustache on the Mona Lisa or a punk hairdo on the classic American Gothic farmer and wife. Idée's co-founder and CEO Leila Boujnane comes from a technology background and has an advisory board loaded with tech and business heavy- hitters.
The company's core business is actually an image monitoring service called PixID, which helps image owners get their money, or at least credit, when their material is used online. It works for both still and video images.
Clients range from stock photo giant Getty Images to news service Agence France-Presse (AFP). In a testimonial on Idée's website, Michel Scotto, AFP's director of photo business development, says "we expect Idée's service will enable us to keep track of all our images, since their technology scales to deal with many millions of images.”
That scalability comes from making astute use of cloud computing.
They're giving out some free beta testing accounts on TinEye and the results are surprisingly good, given that they've only indexed a fraction of the images that are out there. Idée's Boujnane pegged that number at 487 million when she spoke at nextMEDIA in Banff, but it's expected to reach a billion soon.
For comparison, Google claims "billions," and offers the ability to label images to help in retrieving them. And of course, they're working on visual search in Google Labs, as are other companies such as Mountain-View, Calif.-based Searchme, Inc.
But, at least for now, Idée is definitely in the visual search-engine lead, and it owes much of that to cloud computing.
As Amazon's evangelical Jeff Barr puts it, "the cloud is not happening in the future, it's already here."
(Tom Keenan is a professor at the University of Calgary and an expert on technology and its social implications. He can be reached at email@example.com)