Google may be wary of adding a facial recognition system to Project Glass, its forthcoming computerized eyewear, due to the privacy implications. But the company appears to be more sanguine about the public's willingness to accept fashion recognition.
Google recently awarded a research grant to support ongoing work on a project called InSight that enables individuals to be identified by their visual fingerprint, calculated through assessments of clothing colors, body structure and motion patterns.
The award came after the researchers involved in the project submitted a proposal that focused on how their technology could enhance Project Glass.
Google has not committed to including this technology in any future products. Rather, it's supporting the development of technology that could be useful for mobile products like Project Glass or in other contexts.
Google declined to comment on whether it intends to implement InSight in Project Glass.
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InSight is being developed by University of South Carolina associate professor of computer science Srihari Nelakuditi, Duke University associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering Romit Roy Choudhury and Duke graduate students He Wang and Xuan Bao.
In a phone interview, Nelakuditi explained that the idea for the technology arose out of the desire to allow users of mobile devices to communicate more effectively with those around them, and perhaps share data in situations like conferences or other public gatherings.
Facial recognition technology was an option, but Nelakuditi said it posed two problems. "One is the face may not always be visible," he said. "Also, we think it's good to have a temporary fingerprint rather than a permanent biometric."
No doubt it's good from Google's perspective, given that the company has invested in facial recognition technology but has deployed it warily because of the privacy implications. Though it has found a use for facial recognition in Picasa and Google+ tagging, the company has opted not to add it to mobile products like Google Goggles.
Project Glass is an obvious candidate for some form of facial recognition. But having played the part of privacy invader too often in recent years, Google probably isn't eager to be seen repeating past heedlessness or the missteps of competitors.
Despite the fact that social networks have made exhibitionism the norm, at least among the young, Google appears to be more focused on privacy protections -- for example, blurring people's faces in Street View and YouTube -- than identity exposure at the moment, at least outside of the context of targeted advertising.
Visual fingerprints are temporary because their reliance on clothing makes them variable. The researchers in their paper on the topic, "InSight: Recognizing Humans without Face Recognition," suggest "spatio-chromatic ﬁngerprints" might be used to identify oneself in a crowd to those who might share a common goal, such as forming a group to make a taxi trip more affordable.
For example, a person with a smartphone could use the technology to photograph himself or herself and broadcast the visual fingerprint produced from that image to people wearing Project Glass eyeglasses. Those people could then see the broadcasting person identified with an arrow overlaid on their field of vision: Their glasses produced a series of visual fingerprints for visible individuals in the area and identified the person whose visual fingerprint matched the broadcast fingerprint.
If that ends up taking too much time, processing power, bandwidth or cognitive commitment, another option would be to shout, "Anyone want to share a cab to Manhattan?"
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