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Cross-Modal Retrieval: Image-to-Text and Text-to-Image Search

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With technological advancements, many multimedia data requests efficient ways to search for and obtain information across several methodologies. Cross-modal retrieval frameworks have been developed through research using AI and CV. Cross-modal retrieval is a branch of computer vision and natural language processing that links visual and verbal descriptions.

This article explores the fascinating field of cross-modal retrieval, specifically image-to-text and text-to-image search, and these tasks’ challenges, methods, and uses.

Understanding Cross-Modal Retrieval

Cross-modal retrieval is the process of looking for relevant details using various techniques, including text and visuals. Finding textual labels or comments properly representing a particular image is the aim of image-to-text search. In contrast, text-to-image search looks to find relevant pictures based on a given textual query. Cross-modal retrieval techniques let us investigate and glean valuable insights from multimodal material by using the connections between visuals and text.

Building the Model
Deep learning techniques have proven to be highly effective in performing cross-modal retrieval. Convolutional neural networks (CNNs) and recurrent neural networks (RNNs) are often employed to extract meaningful representations from images and text, respectively. These representations, or embeddings, capture the semantic and visual similarities between different modalities. By training a joint model that maps images and textual data into a shared embedding space, we can measure their compatibility and similarity.

In the case of image-to-text search, deep learning models such as VGG16 or ResNet can be used to extract image features. These features are then compared with text embeddings generated by processing textual descriptions using techniques like word embeddings or recurrent neural networks. The model is trained to minimize the discrepancy between the visual and textual embeddings, allowing for accurate retrieval of relevant textual descriptions given an image query.

For text-to-image search, we reverse the process. Textual queries are transformed into embeddings using methods like word embeddings or recurrent neural networks. These embeddings are matched with image features extracted from a pre-trained CNN, such as VGG16 or Inception, to identify visually relevant images. Techniques like generative models, such as generative adversarial networks (GANs), can also be employed to generate images based on textual descriptions and match them with the query text.

The following steps are involved while building the model for cross-modal retrieval.

Before you start working or running the code, ensure you have TensorFlow installed in your working environment or Colab.

Note: For the sample of the code, we have used simulated random images with the shape (224, 224, 3). These images are generated using the NumPy library’s np.random.random function creates arrays filled with random numbers between 0 and 1. The shape (224, 224, 3) corresponds to a standard RGB image size commonly used in computer vision tasks.

!pip install tensorflow --q
!pip install matplotlib --q

Load Required Libraries

Next, load all the required dependencies as shown below:

from tensorflow.keras.applications.vgg16 import VGG16
from tensorflow.keras.applications.vgg16 import preprocess_input
from tensorflow.keras.models import Model
from tensorflow.keras.layers import Input, Dense, Embedding, LSTM, concatenate
from tensorflow.keras.preprocessing.text import Tokenizer
from tensorflow.keras.preprocessing.sequence import pad_sequences
import numpy as np
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt

Create a Numpy Array of Images

Generate simulated data for images, texts, and labels. Create a NumPy array, images, holding randomized image data. Formulate a list, texts, containing the same text for all samples. Construct a NumPy array, labels, populated with random binary labels.

num_samples = 100
image_shape = (224, 224, 3)
max_length = 20
vocab_size = 10000
embedding_dim = 100
num_classes = 2
images = np.random.random((num_samples, *image_shape))
texts = ['I like eating Bananas'] * num_samples
labels = np.random.randint(2, size=(num_samples, num_classes))

Image Processing

Take the crucial step of preprocessing the images using the preprocess_input function. This function is pivotal in preparing images for various neural network architectures. Employ the Tokenizer class to tokenize and index the words present in the texts. Transform these indexed text sequences into text_sequences using texts_to_sequences. Complete this process by ensuring uniformity in sequence length using pad_sequences.

images_preprocessed = np.array([preprocess_input(img) for img in images])
tokenizer = Tokenizer(num_words=vocab_size)
text_sequences = tokenizer.texts_to_sequences(texts)
text_sequences_padded = pad_sequences(text_sequences, maxlen=max_length)

Load the Pre-Trained Model

Construct an image input tensor via the Input class. Load a pre-trained VGG16 model and extract the final fully connected layer (‘fc2’) responsible for feature extraction. The extracted features are contained in vgg_output.

Then, initiate the formation of a text input tensor. Leverage an embedding layer to convert tokenized text sequences into dense vectors. Subsequently, process these embeddings with an LSTM layer to capture sequential nuances within the text.

image_input = Input(shape=image_shape)
vgg_model = VGG16(weights='imagenet', include_top=True)
vgg_model = Model(inputs=vgg_model.input, outputs=vgg_model.get_layer('fc2').output)
vgg_output = vgg_model(image_input)

text_input = Input(shape=(max_length,))
embedding_layer = Embedding(vocab_size, embedding_dim, input_length=max_length)(text_input)
lstm_layer = LSTM(256)(embedding_layer)

Combine the Outputs

Unify the outputs of the VGG and LSTM models through concatenation, followed by the RElu activation function. Craft the output layer, characterized by a dense configuration housing num_classes neurons and employing a softmax activation function. This setup enables the prediction of class probabilities. Then, compile the model, harnessing the power of the Adam optimizer and categorical cross-entropy loss. The accuracy metric is also implemented to gauge performance.

combined = concatenate([vgg_output, lstm_layer])
dense1 = Dense(256, activation='relu')(combined)
output = Dense(num_classes, activation='softmax')(dense1)

cross_modal_model = Model(inputs=[image_input, text_input], outputs=output)

cross_modal_model.compile(optimizer='adam', loss='categorical_crossentropy', metrics=['accuracy'])

Model Training

Dive into the training phase, where the model receives preprocessed image and text data and corresponding labels. The training unfolds over a single epoch, allowing the model to gain initial insights. Next, prepare the query image for analysis by subjecting it to the same preprocessing steps used on the training images.[images_preprocessed, text_sequences_padded], labels, epochs=1, batch_size=32)

query_image = images[0][np.newaxis, ...]
query_text = 'I like eating Bananas'
query_image_preprocessed = preprocess_input(query_image)

image_features = vgg_model.predict(query_image_preprocessed)

query_sequence = tokenizer.texts_to_sequences([query_text])
query_sequence_padded = pad_sequences(query_sequence, maxlen=max_length)

text_results = ["Retrieved text 1", "Retrieved text 2"]
image_results = [images[1], images[2]]


Display the output of the model building for confirmation.

print("Image-to-Text Results:")
for result in text_results:

print("Text-to-Image Results:")
for result in image_results:

Following these processes, we can develop our cross-modal retrieval model—access to the full code here.

Applications of Cross-Modal Retrieval

  1. Visual Search in E-commerce: Cross-modal retrieval enhances the shopping experience by enabling users to find products based on images or textual descriptions. Users can take a photo or provide a description to search for visually similar products, facilitating efficient and intuitive product discovery.
  2. Content-Based Image Retrieval: Cross-modal retrieval allows users to search for images using specific keywords or phrases. Analyzing the content and features of images enables the retrieval of visually similar images from large image databases, assisting in tasks such as image similarity analysis, content recommendation, or image-based information retrieval.
  3. Image Annotation: Cross-modal retrieval techniques support automatically generating descriptive text for images. By understanding the visual content of images, it becomes possible to automatically annotate images with relevant keywords or textual descriptions. This aids in organizing and categorizing large image datasets, enabling efficient search and retrieval of images based on their content.
  4. Image Captioning: Cross-modal retrieval enables the automatic generation of captions or textual descriptions for images. By leveraging the relationship between images and their corresponding textual descriptions, generating accurate and meaningful captions is possible. This benefits applications such as image indexing, accessibility for visually impaired individuals, or enhancing understanding and context in image-based content.

Challenges in Cross-Modal Retrieval

  1. Semantic Gap: One of the fundamental challenges in cross-modal retrieval is the semantic gap between images and text. Pixel values represent images, while linguistic symbols represent text. The inherent differences in their representations make it challenging to map the two modalities directly. Bridging this semantic gap requires effective techniques to capture and align the underlying semantics in images and text.
  2. Limited Labeled Data: An additional challenge in cross-modal retrieval is the scarcity of labeled data that pairs images and corresponding textual descriptions. Collecting large-scale datasets with accurate annotations for cross-modal retrieval is time-consuming and expensive. Innovative approaches such as transfer learning or self-supervised learning techniques are often employed to leverage pre-existing knowledge from related tasks or exploit the inherent structure within the data to train cross-modal models with limited labeled data.
  3. Heterogeneous Modalities: Cross-modal retrieval integrates different data modalities, such as images and text, each with its characteristics, representations, and interpretation methods. Images are visual data, while text is linguistic data. Integrating these heterogeneous modalities requires addressing the challenges of feature extraction, alignment, and fusion to effectively capture complementary information and bridge the gap between visual and textual representations.
  4. Scalability: As the size of datasets continues to grow, scalability becomes a significant challenge in cross-modal retrieval. Handling large-scale datasets with millions of images and extensive textual descriptions demands efficient storage, processing, and retrieval mechanisms. Developing scalable algorithms and architectures that can handle the complexity and volume of multimodal data is essential to ensure the feasibility and practicality of cross-modal retrieval systems.

Addressing these challenges is crucial for advancing the field of cross-modal retrieval and unlocking its full potential in various applications. Researchers continue exploring innovative techniques and methodologies to overcome these challenges and improve cross-modal retrieval systems’ accuracy, efficiency, and scalability.

Future Directions

  1. Advancements in Deep Learning Architectures: The exploration of transformer-based models like BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) and vision-language models like CLIP (Contrastive Language-Image Pre-training) has shown promising results in bridging the gap between modalities. These models leverage self-attention mechanisms and cross-modal interactions to capture the semantic relationships between images and text, improving retrieval performance.
  2. Multimodal Pre-training and Fine-tuning: To tackle the limited labeled data challenge, multimodal pre-training strategies have gained traction. Models are pre-trained on large-scale multimodal datasets, such as Conceptual Captions or Visual Genome, to learn rich representations that capture the joint semantics of images and text. The pre-trained models are then fine-tuned on specific downstream tasks, allowing them to adapt and specialize for tasks like image-to-text or text-to-image retrieval.
  3. Joint Embedding Spaces: Enhancing the alignment of representations in shared embedding spaces is crucial for capturing meaningful cross-modal relationships. Mapping images and text into a shared embedding space can effectively measure similarities and relationships between modalities. Techniques like triplet loss or contrastive learning ensure that similar images and text instances are closer in the embedding space while dissimilar ones are farther apart, promoting effective cross-modal retrieval.
  4. Attention Mechanisms: Attention mechanisms have proven valuable in capturing relevant information and aligning image and text modalities. Attention mechanisms facilitate the fusion of relevant visual and textual features by selectively attending to important regions or words, enabling effective cross-modal retrieval. Models like Transformer-based architectures leverage self-attention mechanisms to capture fine-grained interactions between modalities, improving performance in capturing cross-modal relationships.

By incorporating these advancements into cross-modal retrieval systems, researchers aim to improve retrieval accuracy, enhance the understanding of multimodal data, and overcome challenges associated with modalities mismatch and limited labeled data. These techniques provide promising directions for future research and development in cross-modal retrieval.


Cross-modal retrieval, especially image-to-text and text-to-image search, brings up fascinating possibilities to explore and analyze multimodal data. We can use deep learning approaches to create models that comprehend and extract pertinent information from several modalities. We may anticipate increasingly accurate, efficient, and adaptable cross-modal retrieval methods as the discipline develops, allowing us to extract essential insights from the immense sea of multimedia data.

Liz Makena

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