Face Recognition Coming to Image Searching

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Ever been frustrated in searching photographs using traditional search engines like Google or Yahoo or image sharing sites? Do you usually get a lot of unrelated images, or find your searching hindered by the (lack of) quality tagging used by other Internet users? Beginning in 2007, Swedish startup company Polar Rose wants to start making image searching easier by leveraging user input and facial recognition technology to accurately identify people in photographs.

Part of Polar Rose’s strategy is to let user annotate photos with names and other details, thereby harnessing the collective knowledge of Internet users to provide raw data for the Polar Rose technology. Users, in turn, can draw on that collective knowledge to find photos with the same or similar-looking people, relying both on data provided by users and inferences from Polar Rose’s facial recognition technology—which is supposed to be able to deal with shifts in lighting, expression, and perspective by converting faces to three-dimensional “faceprints.”

Polar Rose’s technology will take two forms: one will be a freely available browser plug-in expected to be released during the first quarter of 2007. The plug-in will detect people in online photos and display a Polar Rose logo somewhere below detected faces. By clicking the rose, users can add a name and other relevant information about the person; the data is then passed back to Polar Rose, which uses it to refine its engine for identifying the same person in other photos, or finding similar-looking people.

Polar Rose also plans to release royalty-free APIs so Web sites can integrate Polar Rose functionality into their sites…so long as they keep the signature rose, and make sure user data is passed back to Polar Rose. The APIs will also debut in the first quarter of 2007, although the company says some partnerships will be announced in January.

As interesting as the technology might be, the Polar Rose model does raise interesting privacy concerns. For instance, what will Polar Rose do to thwart the inevitable gaming of the service (someone posting thousands of photos of himself identified as “Brad Pitt”) or uses of Polar Rose for pranks or harassment (for instance, tagging photos of a disliked individual as “Adolf Hitler”). Will users be able to control whether—or how—their Polar Rose faceprints are used, be able to prevent them from being distributed, or ensure their accuracy? And who, exactly, will have access to that data, and what will they be able to do with it? Questions questions questions.

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