Friday, August 5, 2011

How computer facial recognition will change society

Long the realm of science fiction, advanced technologies that identify faces now are emerging as the hottest entertainment gimmick, despite the potential for privacy concerns.

One of the latest is SceneTap, a free application for iPhone and Android smartphones released in recent weeks that displays real-time stats on the local bar scene. Based on information collected via face-detection cameras installed at participating bars, the app shows the number of people at the bar, the male-to-female ratio and the average age of patrons. ...

And hitting the market in time for the holidays this year are television set-top boxes that include facial-recognition cameras. The technology, developed by Palo Alto, Calif.-based Viewdle will be able to identify who is sitting in front of the TV then customize programming according to that individual, displaying most recently watched or recorded shows, for instance. Parents also could program the device to limit which channels their children can access. ...

Facial recognition has come a long way after years of false starts. On still frontal face images, the error rate of rejecting a legitimate claim—when the face image and name match—decreased to 0.29% in 2010, from a rate of 79% in 1993, according to a study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. ...

While SceneTap doesn't ask for patrons' permission to capture their image, nobody sees the video feed, and the information isn't recorded, says Cole Harper, chief executive at SceneTap. He says that the company doesn't collect any personal information. The technology also doesn't link up to Facebook or match against publicly available photos on the Web to identify exactly who is entering the bar, or scan for more controversial characteristics like ethnicity.

"From a technology standpoint, I would be lying to say that is not possible. But there are a lot of bridges that need to be crossed," Mr. Harper says.
--Emily Steel, WSJ, on why facial recognition is more than a cool iPhoto gimmick. How long before retailers use the technology to track the customers coming into their stores, analyzing their behavior, and using the results to drive pricing and promotion strategies?