Kodak has turned to United Kingdom academics to solve a problem that the company's founder George Eastman may not have foreseen when he set the world's shutters clicking.
Billions of images now exist on film, paper and electronic media, but researchers and educators, publishers and broadcasters have no easy way to locate and retrieve the pictures they need.
The Knowledge Gallery will be a one-stop shop for photographic, artistic, medical and scientific images in digital form. Established by the funding councils' Joint Information Systems Committee and the non-profit company Smart Isles, it will market images owned by UK higher education institutions and negotiate favourable access for academics to commercial image libraries.
Announcing the venture Gillian Shephard, secretary of state for education and employment, said: "In the Knowledge Gallery we have a really exciting example of how the private and public sectors can work together to mutual advantage."
Tony Waterlow, Kodak's UK managing director said that Kodak, Sun Microsystems and other commercial partners will be investing "some millions" to ensure that the venture becomes one of the world's leading sources of educational images.
The NISS information gateway at the University of Bath will provide an initial entry point to the Knowledge Gallery. The main index is likely to be held on a web server at one of Kodak's UK sites. It will be accessible from all sites on the UK academic network JANET. Those with the faster SuperJANET connections will enjoy a snappier response.
Anne Mumford of Loughborough University, seconded to JISC's advisory group on computer graphics, said: "The desperate need is for something that indexes across collections." Dr Mumford hopes that besides still pictures, the index will include video and 3D images.
Kodak has expertise in scanning, processing, and printing photographic and digital images. It has a technique for "watermarking" digital images to protect them against illegal copying.
The Knowledge Gallery will use technology developed three years ago in the United States for the Kodak Picture Exchange. This service is now operated commercially by Sprint Communications and offers approximately 300,000 images from 30 major photo agencies. It uses Sun computers and networking software, a Sybase relational database, and BRS text search software.
The Knowledge Gallery will still face the vast and difficult task of indexing millions of images. Text documents can be indexed by the words they contain, but it is much harder to describe image content.
"Image retrieval is very much a research topic," said Mel Collier of De Montfort University, whose report helped to persuade JISC of the need for a unified image index.
Barclays Bank is not yet formally a partner in the project, but the other partners are looking to it for both finance and technology. The bank's technologies for electronic commerce and online payment, used on its Barclay Square web site, could help the Knowledge Gallery to collect royalties and pass on a share to copyright holders.