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Viewdle – social face recognition – interview with founder Laurent Gil

February 17, 2011 5 comments

I’ve just come off the phone from chatting with Laurent Gil, the founder of Viewdle who have created some revolutionary patented face recognition technology. If you read my blog early today, you will have seen their launch video (it’s shown again below).

I asked Laurent whether the video was just a big budget ad creating a vision – but with few links to reality. Laurent said: “Definitely not. What you see is not science fiction. This is the first application of our face recognition technology. Even on the relatively small processors on mobile phones, we can recognise a face in 300ms and then go off to the cloud

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to get more information. It’s just like you see on the video.”

“It’s not a big budget advert either – we’re a start-up! We got together with some cool guys we knew in LA, explained what our technology does and they shot it. It was shot with HD cameras – so you might not see the same definition on your phone quite yet – but the rest is here now with Viewdle’s technology.”

I probed further to see if he could explain why this video had had such an impact on me and many others – the leap in techology is a bit scary. Laurent said: “We have some very serious brains behind this technology. We have 8 PhDs and 30 staff just working on visual analysis. We have a total of 65 engineers. Our team work in Palo Alto, South America and in the Ukraine.”

I’d read on the LA Times blog that Viewdle’s technology “has its roots in technology created for the surveillance-happy government of the former Soviet Union”. Laurent said; “No – that’s not right. People like to say that – but all my staff are much younger than me and from way after the cold war days. The technology came out of clever people in maths and science in Kiev – but out team is around the world now. Our business is consumer facing – and we plan to apply this exciting technology to social media, not surveillance.”

Laurent explained that the technology works on a “Faceprint” that is generated by the software – typically from Facebook albums and photos that you have tagged and have access to. On the phone the super fast comparison and matching is based around this “FacePrint”.

Laurent talked me through the broad vision of Viewdle: “We are getting social at the point of capture – and creating the links to your friends and family. We are closely integrated to Facebook – and the generation that loves social media. Young people want to take and share pictures now. They don’t want to have to go and tag on the desktop. Our technology tags, routes and shares instantly for you – it’s a photo messaging tool.”

They’ve got some heavy hitter supporters in terms of technology and finance. People like Qualcomm, Blackberry and Texas Instrument. They’ve also announced today at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona a Software Development Kit (SDK) – so he said: “expect to see applications on your phone using this technology by the end of this year.”

I asked about whether it would be hitting the iPhone soon. Laurent said: “Apple acquired Polar Rose last year. They are a face recognition company – but we believe that what we have developed to work actually on the phone is very different. I suppose you could say we are Apple competitors.”

Throughout the conversation, Laurent talked up the idea of Viewdle being for “friends and family” and that “it is an extension of what young people are doing already on Facebook.”

I asked about the “Big P” that hangs over this – Privacy! Laurent said: “We’re focussed on being consumer and social. We work within that environment – and so we recognise and track the Privacy Settings in Facebook. If you are sharing your pictures with someone – then Viewdle can use them to help you.”

I checked how this would work with the SDK – allowing other organisations to build applications. He said: “We are very careful in this area. We know it is sensitive. We are going to make sure that there are the restrictions at the API level so that you can access the ‘Faceprint’ of only those people you connect with and if they allow access.”

There is no doubt that this is a fantastic bit of technology – and that people using social media will have their lives enriched. I spent many years as a professional photographer – I understand the passion to share images. It’s ground breaking – and the Viewdle video gives you a clear view of how that works on a social level. It’s great.

Personally, I am not so worried about privacy – it is ultimately an individual’s choice what they chose to share. I’m an entrepreneur – and I believe these exciting new technologies will find many great uses. However, I do think that Viewdle’s video – with its technology “here today” – will fuel the debate about the “time bomb” of what the Facebook generation chose to share about their life. The “Digital Dossier” or the “Digital Footprint”.

Reading the article on Technology Review – I was struck by one of the comments that focussed on the Orwellian implications:

The amazing thing is that Big Brother is being built without a penny in taxes. We just buy all the gadgets, voluntarily, that enable it.

I’m not so worried about Big Brother. It’s the simple things in life and relationships for me. I can’t see a future where my son will scratch his head and say to someone he thinks that he might have met before – “Do I know you?” He’ll probably know so much more (even at first contact) than he would ever want to know!

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