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Computers Can Spot Your Face in the Crowd

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David Silversmith
David Silversmith

It looks like 2009 could be the year when facial recognition technology will start to take off. The idea is quite simple - use the computer to match the faces in a photo against a database of known faces to find specific photos. Like many innovations, there are multiple the potential applications for this technology ranging from consumer uses to police/military uses. While this technology could be used to help catch you - hopefully the police are not looking for our readers and we'll focus on the fun applications coming your way.

If you are an avid digital photographer than you probably have this issue. You have thousands of photos on your computer and somewhere in that haystack of photos are a handful of photos of dear old Aunt Alice. Yes, you know that you "should have" better named the photos or used tags and comments - but gosh darn you didn't and now you want to find that photo of Alice without spending 3 hours. Here are some tools you can use today and some that are on the way.

Picasa is a free photo organiser that Google owns.  They recently added a feature called "name tagging." You identify a face and Picasa then adds searches through all your photos to find those photos that have the same face in them. It adds a label like "Aunt Alice" to all the photos where it finds a match. I'm not a Picasa user, but I tested this with a friend and we were both surprised by the results. We discovered that if you identify a face using more than one photo you will get much better results.  The biggest limitations are that these tools are for use on Picasa only - it only searches photos on Picasa and if you download the photos the tags don't download.

Apple's iPhoto 09 introduced a similar feature called Faces that allows you to organize your photos based on who’s in them. I discovered pretty much the same issues with iPhoto. This is not like the sexy face-recognition stuff you might see in a TV show or movie where everyone is immediately discovered. Like Picasa, iPhoto misses a lot of faces.  Though I did run into more mismatches with iPhoto where inanimate objects were labeled as faces.

The product that is a real wow is still in development at They took the approach that they wanted to recognize "faces in the wild." This means they focused not on crystal clear portraits, but on everyday photos that suffer from such issues as low resolution or bad lighting or even where faces are obscured with sunglasses. has already won contests conducted by a University in the US comparing these different services and from what I have seen their results are far more accurate than iPhoto or Picasa. While is not publicly available yet, you can sign up for the product to be included in future test groups.

The real take off for facial recognition will come when unleashes its Facebook Photo Finder application. I'm predicting that within minutes there will be tens of thousands of users tapping into Photo Finder to search not only their pictures but their friend's pictures. Fortunately, has been designed with that type of volume in mind because Facebook will bring facial recognition to the mainstream.

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