How Adobe Sneaks go from “onstage” into app

Adobe MAX Sneaks

Twice a year Adobe engineers take the stage at Adobe MAX and Adobe Summit to show off early tech innovations to 1000s of people in a theater and millions more online. These demos are experiments — ‘pre-release’ technology — that may not even make their way into future products. Often with no training in public speaking, showing off not-ready-for-primetime technology, with a celebrity host — the Adobe Sneak Peek presenters are a special breed.

In this article

  • Why Sneak peeks work
  • From selection to Sneak to shipped
  • Getting on stage
  • The crowd decides

The “Sneak peeks” program (or Sneaks, for short) is a perennial fan-favorite, started at Omniture in the late 1990’s (before Adobe acquired the company in 2009) as part of their customer events. The session was interactive, where product managers would show off new analytics tool features and attendees would vote on their favorites. The program’s popularity made it a must-have as Adobe evolved the event into Summit. And of course, if marketers were so interested in early martech, well then it only made sense that not-yet-released creative app features would also make a great show.

“You get to be a mini-celebrity,” said Geoffrey Oxholm, senior research manager, explaining how the MAX stage is great visibility for development teams working on new products.

Oxholm is now an old pro, presenting his Adobe Research team’s work in 2015 (with Project Dollhouse, which adds perspective to drawings) and 2016 (with Loop Welder, which makes looping short videos for social media). It was in 2017, with the demo of Project Cloak, that Oxholm truly experienced the real power of Adobe Sneak Peeks.

Why Sneak peeks work

Sneaks has two main objectives: “To demonstrate the commitment to ongoing innovation, and to gauge interest in those innovations,” said Ben Forta, senior director, education initiatives at Adobe and Sneaks program director. A former Sneaks host and presenter himself, Forta said roughly half the projects shown in Sneaks go on to become products.

“I’ve done presentations that have become product, and I’ve done some presentations that bombed and the demo totally crashed,” he said. A flawed presentation doesn’t mean the project won’t move to product, though. The projects selected for Sneaks are picked because they show promise. In fact, according to Forta, some have been pulled from consideration because they were already planned for imminent release.

The projects must be forward-looking “genre-defining” features, said Forta. “We want to show things no one has thought of before,” he said. They also need to be real developments, “not simply a PowerPoint” that can be demonstrated to an interested crowd. They need not be completely finished, but they must be real, no smoke-and-mirrors, no faking it, this is all real working technology, often in the earliest of development stages. Adobe research teams pitch their Sneaks to the events’ selection committees and the final ones selected are a mix of features and products that will resonate with the diverse MAX audience. “We don’t look for 10 Sneaks that are all Photoshop-related,” Forta added.

From selection to Sneak to shipped

Project Cloak (Oxholm’s 2017 entry) developed into Content-Aware Fill (CAF) for video, a new feature later released in After Effects, in Adobe Creative Cloud. The feature allows editors and visual effects artists to remove unwanted elements from video clips (such as production gear, drone shadows, or even stand-in actors for CGI characters) and replaces them with backgrounds generated from adjacent pixels and other frames in the clip.

Oxholm had been working on the idea of a tool to remove objects from videos since he joined Adobe in 2014. He knew it was a feature customers wanted for video, and he saw first-hand that it was one of Photoshop’s most popular features. At the time the call for Sneaks submissions came in, Project Cloak was just starting to show promise. Still, the team submitted the feature and made it through the first round of nominations.

Being selected to present at Sneaks is a process in and of itself. Teams nominate their projects, and the selection is cut down in the first round, “and then everybody has to scramble to make a real demo,” said Oxholm. The prospect of securing a spot for Sneaks does help focus attention on a project, he noted.

“It becomes your main thing, whether or not that was your plan. It's such a big opportunity,” said Oxholm. “It's instantly more important than the other things you thought you might be doing with your summer.”

Developers are at work on many different projects, each with their own efforts and obstacles, and presenting at Sneaks is a way to drum up enthusiasm to test one with customers, said Oxholm. “If 10,000 people clap for something, then the company can't help but take notice,” he said. “It's a bit of a strategic thing for our teams, to try to bring attention to the work that we've been doing.”

Once a project is chosen for Sneaks, the organizers work with the presenters to develop a 3-4 minute presentation for the stage and work on their presentation skills. And it doesn’t usually end there - nearly every Sneaks presenter wants to do it again, Forta said. “They’re looked at as rock stars when they’re done. People take their pictures and everything,” he said.

Being featured in Sneaks raises the stakes for a product, and it’s critical to have open communication with the product teams, so they can be ready in the event the project moves to the product stage, said Oxholm. “Sneaks has become a lot more intentional over the years, much more a partnership with product teams, as opposed to just a race to demo your technologies,” he said.

Getting on stage

For the 2017 Sneaks program, Oxholm was last to present. He paced backstage, trying to stay focused. Once onstage, he zeroed in on what he’d practiced, opening with some applause lines to get a few laughs and break the tension, and working up to the grand finale, where two people were first shown walking through a canyon, and then were removed from the footage.

Geoff Oxholm presenting at Adobe Sneaks

Presentation of Project Cloaks at Adobe MAX by Geoff Oxholm.

“It was barely working (a few days before the show), so I was working really hard to get it to be where it should be.” By the day of the presentation? “At last, the results looked pretty good,” said Oxholm.

“The real exciting stuff comes after… on Twitter and social media, where people are sharing their reactions. Some of them are saying: ‘There's no way this is real.’ It just makes you want to get it to the customers and show them that they can actually have this,” said Oxholm.

“Sometimes it’s eye opening to see how the audience responds to what they are seeing,” said Forta. “There definitely have been times where the reaction has been so extreme that it elicited (from us) a, ‘yeah, we need to have that thing’, kind of response.”

The crowd decides

Immediately after Oxholm’s 2017 Sneaks session, the reaction on social media and from people in the industry was clear: this technology was needed in the product.

“We had folks mailing us hard drives with footage where they wanted to remove something,” even before the feature was available, said Oxholm. In one video file they received, a damaged sensor had ruined footage. In another, an entire recording of an interview with a famous personality was marred by a lighting mistake. Oxholm and his team actually fixed both those expensive errors and sent back clean footage. “And in both these cases, the folks on the phone were so grateful they were emotional,” he said. For the team, it was an opportunity to work out some of the technology issues, and of course: demonstrate the product in real life.

The reaction after Sneaks, “really made it clear that this should be a thing that we work on.” The original inventors of After Effects had already shown interest in the function Oxholm was developing, and “that's as much of a guarantee as you can get.”

Around the same time, a senior developer on the After Effects team joined Oxholm’s team and helped integrate the new feature. Since its first release in 2019, Content-Aware Fill for Video has been iterated on in subsequent releases based on additional customer feedback, the feature is now faster, uses less memory and supports changes in background lighting or exposure.

A slot at Sneaks doesn’t mean a project is more likely to move to production, but, said Forta, “Often it’s very clear on the day we’re running through this, which are the ones people will go: ‘I’ve got to a have that.’”