IMAGE: Skype

What Skype’s blur feature tells us about maintaining leadership in your sector

Skype has announced a new feature that allows you to blur the background when making video calls, maintaining the correct focus on the image of you in the form of an elegant bokeh effect. The algorithm is able to identify our face, hair and arms and blur the rest of the image.

The feature, that had been previously tested in the teleconferencing feature in Microsoft Teams, leads me to wonder about the pace of development of algorithms capable of recognizing the parts of an image and then dividing them up depending on the task at hand: a camera simply collects pixels, so it is no small feat to get it to understand that certain pixels are a person, that that person is trying to have a conversation, and that what is in the background is irrelevant and can or should therefore be blurred. I discussed this back in 2017 when Apple launched the iPhone 8 with Portrait mode, a feature that applies lighting effects and can be used to improve photos.

Google’s improvements to the camera of its Pixel 3 raised similar questions about which is more important in a camera: the quality of its optics — above a certain level — or algorithms that that can improve and correct a photo before your eyes. In terms of machine learning, there have been significant improvements in terms of improving lighting or blurring a background, and we will undoubtedly see further advances applied to specific tasks as time progresses.

Then there is the question of the capacities required to maintain leadership in a sector: for some time now, camera manufacturers have been developing software skills instead of focusing on their traditional business, optics and hardware, which has meant venturing into new segments where the development of expertise is based on different parameters, as well as the need to be competitive and attract talent in those areas.

With each day we must reconceptualize our products in a range of ways: on the one hand, by calculating how many of the variables of the purchasing process or competitive dynamics relate to the product, or, equally, creating a highly differentiated service, as we are seeing with Apple and its progressive orientation to services (I’m not selling you a smartwatch, but if you buy it, you can have access to a permanent monitoring service that will help detect arrhythmias or other cardio-vascular problems). On the other hand, we have to take into consideration which parts of a product will be differentiated by generally incremental improvements and which will be improved thanks to the incorporation of software with certain capabilities.

If you are responsible for some type of physical product, start thinking about it: the world has become much more complex and the ability to differentiate your products will not always depend on the same factors as before.

(En español, aquí)