Google Coy Over Use Of Facial-Recognition Technology

Ostensibly to be used for its Picasa desktop photo-organizing tool, the technology from Neven Vision could change the way users search for images on the Web.

Don't think Google will just use facial-recognition technology it acquired from its purchase of Neven Vision for Picasa, its free photo-organizing tool used by consumers to search for pictures on their desktops. That's not Google's modus operandi. If it can, Google will employ Neven Vision's technology in its online search engines to improve the way to find photographs on the Web.

The only word about the Neven Vision acquisition from Google came from a blog posting Tuesday on its Web site by Picasa product manager Adrian Graham, who explained that the facial-recognition technology automatically extracts information from a photo. "It could be as simple as detecting whether or not a photo contains a person, or, one day, as complex as recognizing people, places, and objects," Graham wrote. "This technology just may make it a lot easier for you to organize and find the photos you care about. We don't have any specific features to show off today, but we're looking forward to having more to share with you soon."

Analyst Charlene Li, who tracks Google for IT adviser Forrester, says the technology also could be used in Google's people search tool. "It's going to lead to a lot of other things," she says of the facial-recognition technology. "They don't usually buy technology for one offering."

Among the 14 facial-recognition patent applications filed by Neven Vision founder Hartmut Neven is one for an image-based search engine for mobile phones with camera. Because of Google's aloofness, and the inability to reach the inventor [calls to Neven Vision's phone number listed on the Web were greeted with a recording saying it was disconnected], it's not publicly known if Google acquired that technology, too.

Most photo search engines identify a picture by reading the metadata written by the person who posted the image. If the name of the individual pictured isn't in the metadata, then the image won't show up in search results. But search engines that incorporate facial recognition technology could identify images with human-tagged metadata, analyze the facial features in those images, then use that data to detect other pictures of that individual, whether on the desktop or the Web.

That raises privacy issues, with the potential of identifying individuals photographed, say, at specific locations or events.

One thing is certain, however: Improved image identification, whether used as a tool to organize pictures on a PC or as a component to search for photos online, will help attract more users and advertisers to Google, fattening the search-engine and portal company's coffers.

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