By Eric Auchard
Swedish start-up Polar Rose AB aims to make it easy to find photos of familiar faces online, the company said on Tuesday, solving difficult Web search issues while potentially raising new privacy concerns.
Polar Rose said it plans to offer free software to make photos searchable on both personal computers and across the Web by analyzing the contents of pictures with pattern recognition technology to locate specific faces within them.
The company said it will allow users to annotate photos with descriptive details, harnessing the collective intelligence of the Web to improve what can be done with computational searching alone on sites like Google or Yahoo.
Polar Rose, which takes its name from a flower-shaped mathematical curve used to plot two-dimensional coordinates, will help consumers to label any photo and in turn to search for related photos of the same or similar-looking people.
"Now we are in the visual era of the Web," Mikkel Thagaard, Polar Rose's vice president of business development. "That will have implications for the kind of information we find."
In its simplest incarnation, Polar Rose promises to help a computer user sort through and group personal photos face by face. More broadly, the software can ferret out similar-looking photos across the Web, company officials said.
Its software analyzes digital photos to locate faces, then converts the data from two-dimensional (2D) images into 3D models. These skeletal models can be rendered into what scientists call "faceprints."
Polar Rose does not store actual photos, only the faceprint summaries, which can then be compared with other faceprints. This promises to allow the company to create a massive searchable index for comparing and cataloging digital images.
FUN AND OPEN
"You can label photos by name, or find them by their faceprint signature," said Jan Erik Solem, Polar Rose's founder and chief technology officer, said in an interview.
Solem said Polar Rose will only search through and catalog publicly available photographs on the Web, not private databases. It also has ruled out selling its technology for use in surveillance or by intelligence agencies, he added.
"We just want to build a fun, open and transparent service," Solem said. "I can guarantee you that we will not touch those areas."
But in one dramatic example of the search system's power, Thagaard showed a photo of a woman on an online dating site and said Polar Rose technology could potentially be used to identify photos of similar looking women from across the Web.
"Marriages are going to fail because of this technology," Gartner Inc. analyst Mike McGuire said.
In March, Polar Rose plans to offer a public test version of its software. In the second quarter, it aims to introduce a mobile phone photo search version and, by third quarter, to complete an index of publicly available photos on the Web.
The privately held company from Malm, Sweden plans to extend its pattern-recognition capabilities beyond just faces to recognize objects like landmarks, or dogs and cats. Eventually, it also plans to search videos as well.
Still, McGuire questions whether the technology is simply a cool feature to enhance other Web sites or something more. "Right now it is probably a pretty powerful ingredient rather than a business of its own," he said.
Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.
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