Q&A: Suranga Chandratillake

A cofounder of Blinkx explains why Internet video matters and how his company can contribute to its growth.

Last week, at Demo07, an annual conference that showcases new technologies and startups, Suranga Chandratillake, a cofounder and co-CTO of Blinkx (pronounced “blinks”), was voted “Demo God” by the show’s attendees. The crowd was impressed not only by Chandratillake’s intelligence, but also by Blinkx’s technology, which allows users to search more than seven million hours of Internet video to find exactly the clip they want. Unlike most video-search outfits, Blinkx does not merely search the text or tags associated with a particular video. Instead, Chandratillake’s technique employs speech recognition, neural networks, and machine learning to create transcripts of the world’s videos; then, the words spoken in the videos can be searched. The method creates much more relevant video-search results. Chandratillake talked to Technology Review’s editor in chief about Internet video, the company’s ultimate aspiration to be a kind of remote control for all the world’s content, and some recent emerging technology projects.

Suranga Chandratillake: a cofounder and co-CTO of Blinkx wants to create a virtual remote control for Internet video.

Technology Review: What’s so great about Internet video? Why is it growing so fast?

Suranga Chandratillake: The infrastructure is in place now. The bandwidth and processing power are available. Video cameras are cheap and editing software is free (or almost). Ultimately, this all represents a massive lowering of the barrier to entry, which has utterly disrupted the supply side of this enormous global industry. Previously, all production was controlled by a handful of individuals, and the distribution of that content was tied to a small number of restricted mediums: the cinema, Blockbuster, cable TV. Changing the paradigm of entertainment production and distribution matters on multiple levels. In society, the democratization of media means we’re all able to participate in a global conversation or experience. Commercially, it’s suddenly viable to support a diverse “long tail” of content, which previously had a hard time getting an audience.

TR: What are the challenges to the growth of Internet video? How does Blinkx contribute to solving those problems?

SC: The two challenges are, first, copyright and licensing issues and the appropriate and fair monetization of content. People focus on the big media companies and their content, but the smaller publishers matter too. That’s the commercial challenge. The second issue is technical–that is, the filtering and search process. If there are going to be hundreds of millions of hours of video content online, we need to have an efficient, scalable way to search through it.

TR: When I first heard of Blinkx, in mid-2005, it was in the business of desktop search. What happened?

SC: The focus of our technology–contextual search–hasn’t really changed. We felt that the problem of search hadn’t been solved. At first, we applied our contextual search technology to the desktop, and with the proliferation of online video, we saw a great opportunity to improve the rich media-search experience.

TR: If video now constitutes 60 percent of Internet traffic (with some estimates saying that figure will rise to 90 percent within the decade), how much of that content is now searchable using Blinkx? Could you compare that with your competitors in video search, please?

SC: Blinkx is content and source agnostic, which means that we’re working to index all video content, wherever it exists on the Web, which makes us the biggest video-search engine. The other engines focus on a particular type of content. In the case of Clipblast and Furl, the focus is college-humor types of video. Truveo and Singingfish only index video that’s found in RSS feeds, which constitutes less than 10 percent of what’s available.

TR: How does Blinkx work with video sharing and user-generated sites like YouTube and YouAreTV?

SC: Blinkx indexes all the content available on YouTube and YouAreTV and makes it fully searchable. When users click through the results, they’re taken to the appropriate site.

TR: Would P2P file distribution of video present a challenge for Blinkx search?

SC: No, it wouldn’t. Today, Blinkx has avoided heavy indexing of P2P networks because most of the content being swapped is illegal. But ultimately, it’s just another distribution mechanism, and if you still need search, you still need Blinkx.

TR: What is Blinkx’s revenue model given that all the video on the site is free? Explain, for example, Blinkx’s revenue-sharing deal with ITN.

SC: The partnerships with ITN, Lycos, Microsoft, and StudyBuddy are all licensing deals. The terms of the deals vary by partner–they’re all very different–and we’re not currently disclosing specific terms.

TR: Who funded Blinkx?

SC: Blinkx is funded by angels. We’ve raised about $12.5 million so far.

TR: Why did you prefer angel investors? What’s wrong with VCs?

SC: We didn’t have an aversion to VC funding per se. It was more that, at the time we were raising money, it was a bad time to get money for Web video, and the consumer Web was seen as unsexy back then.

TR: BlinkxTV seems extremely interesting. Does it do more than draw in content from outside the Web? How does it fit into Blinkx’s broader corporate goals?

SC: Blinkx is focused on Web video because it’s what’s cool and available. Longer term, we’re already working on IPTV and mobile video. One day, we believe that your TV remote control will be powered by Blinkx.

TR: What on earth is, your cell-phone-photo-sharing site, all about? How is that related to your other work?

SC: Great question! It started off as a boring productivity tool we used internally. With engineers on different continents and time zones, we found it was very helpful for collaboration and also for maintaining a sense of being connected to one another. People are just much better at understanding things visually. After a while, it became this incredibly addictive tool for staying in touch with friends and family across the world, and we realized that other people might want to use it. So it started off as a work thing, and we realized we might be on to something when my mum started watching it.

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