Microsoft just made it easier to upload more photos and files to its OneDrive cloud service. But, perhaps more importantly, it’s also now easier to find these uploads again.
Specifically, OneDrive now intelligently “reads” your documents and photos—and even parses photos of text you’ve snapped—allowing you to search for text strings hidden inside both Word files and images. It’s just one of several new tools, along with a new Albums feature, that Microsoft added to its OneDrive Web app and iPad apps on Wednesday morning.
In a blog post, Douglas Pierce, the group program manager of Microsoft’s OneDrive, explained that Microsoft is now applying techniques used within Microsoft Research and Bing to examine, analyze and tag your photos.
“Our users will have access to automatically grouped collections of photos and they can easily search for specific ones,” Pierce wrote. “You’ll be able to quickly find things such as ‘people,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘whiteboard,’ ‘beach,’ ‘sunsets,’ and dozens of other terms. This makes it even easier to add your photos in to presentations for school, to relive a specific memory, or to share something important with all of your friends on Facebook.”
Why this matters: Microsoft apparently hasn’t turned on the new search feature within my Microsoft account, so we’ll have to wait for a hands-on with the tool. But I suspect that the fundamental technology at the heart of the update may provoke some interesting questions: Will OneDrive be able to find all of my photos taken on my Hawaii vacation, or just the ones it identifies as on the beach? Is facial recognition part of the technology? And can Microsoft’s automated search be turned off? If so, should it?
Find old photos faster
The number of ways Microsoft is assessing your documents and photos is actually pretty extensive. Microsoft will put your files through a virtual optical-character-recognition (OCR) scanner to extract relevant, searchable information. You’ll still be able to tag your photos and files, but now Microsoft will begin creating and applying tags as well (a Tags view will let you see what Microsoft sees). In part, the new feature uses the automated image recognition technology Microsoft began talking about last year.
Given that what we store online—email, calendar information, our locations, etc.—is now consistently being mined by Google, Microsoft and others to help us organize our lives, many users won’t have a problem with Microsoft sinking such deep hooks into cloud documents. That said, Microsoft told PCWorld that users will be able to opt out of some of the new features.
“We offer the ability to turn off tagging and ‘OCR’ for photos,” a spokesperson said in an email. “We have many customers who have asked us to provide ‘full text search’ for documents just as we do on Windows today. Currently, we do not have a feature for turning off this improved search experience, but it is something we can consider in the future if there is customer demand.”
Microsoft also will make it easier to actually get your photos into the cloud through a new “Camera Imports” folder, which will be rolling out over the next month. Once you connect a camera or USB stick to your Windows 7 or 8 computer, photos will be automatically siphoned off and stored in Microsoft’s cloud. Likewise, if you snap a screenshot on a Windows 7 or Windows 8 machine, it too will be stored in OneDrive—a feature that’s already in Windows Phone today.
Microsoft is also going to start sending you Weekend Recap emails that include a summary of the photos you shot during the week.
Albums bring photos together
Finally, a new Albums feature will allow you to take photos and manually group them together. It’s basically a photo-optimized folder that you can store online. Unlike the normal OneDrive slideshow view, Albums will display photos edge-to-edge, and fill your screen with the photo once you zoom in. (Unfortunately, when I tried it, it crashed my browser.)
At this point, it’s unclear how OneDrive’s Albums view, as well as its search capabilities, will intersect the Windows 10 Photos app the company showed off last week. Photos now culls images from OneDrive, but it’s unclear whether you’ll be able to manage Albums in the app itself, or do the sort of advanced search that OneDrive now allows. We’ll simply have to wait and see.
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As PCWorld's senior editor, Mark focuses on Microsoft news and chip technology, among other beats. He has formerly written for PCMag, BYTE, Slashdot, eWEEK, and ReadWrite.