Though they have demonstrated that they have the capability, tech companies have shied away from deployments of mobile facial recognition, mostly out of privacy concerns. Now Apple may be willing to be first to cross that line with its purchase of Swedish startup Polar Rose.


Though they’ve demonstrated that they have the capability, tech companies have shied away from deployments of mobile facial recognition, mostly out of privacy concerns. Now Apple may be queuing up just such functionality with its reported purchase of Swedish startup Polar Rose.

Imagine holding your phone up in front of you with your camera on as you walk down the street. As your focus rests on each new person you pass, the phone pulls up his or her Facebook and LinkedIn profiles and recent Flickr photos, and displays them on your mobile screen on top of the person’s face. The concept combines technologies that already exist: facial recognition as seen in applications like iPhoto, and augmented reality software that overlays information from the web onto our digital view of the world. It’s been theorized and drooled over by many researchers and companies. Sure, it requires better phone cameras and more mobile processing power, but mobile facial recognition isn’t far from reality.

What’s stopping such applications from becoming commonplace is that companies that usually push our expectations like Google are actively restricting themselves from releasing such a product. Earlier this month, in a talk about how humans and computers can help each other, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said his company doesn’t want to connect personal information to the real world via facial recognition because it’s “just too creepy.” It’s still possible Google could get into facial recognition; it’s reportedly been hotly debated internally.

At a Google search event last December where Google Goggles was first introduced, VP of Engineering Vic Gundotra said Google — after its acquisition of startup Neven Vision — was working on the capability to recognize faces, but that it had decided not to include them in Google Goggles at that point. “For this product we want to respect user privacy, and we want to work through issues about opt-in and control,” Gundotra said. “We will delay [releasing facial recognition] until we figure that out.” Since then, Google bought the company Like.com, which started out in facial recognition but moved to image recognition for product search.

But now Apple may be willing to be first to cross that line. Apple has bought the Swedish startup Polar Rose, according to a report by Norwegian Apple site Mac1 that was picked up by 9 to 5 Mac.

Polar Rose is a company I’ve been covering for years; it makes facial recognition technology, and had demonstrated a mobile facial recognition app called Recognizr with the Swedish mobile user interface company TAT. Recognizr wasn’t actually deployed, so it’s never been seen in public use. I tried to get a live demo in April, but the company said it was hosted on a server that only had profiles of TAT and Polar Rose employees, so it would be impossible for me to try it unless one of them was with me in person.

Polar Rose had raised $6.1 million in financing from Nordic Venture Partners and a report pegs its sales price at $22 million. Neither the startup nor Apple has replied to requests for comment.

It’s quite possible that Apple will use Polar Rose to make mobile facial recognition a reality. Apple has already approved some mobile facial recognition apps for sale on the iPhone; for instance, there’s one called FaceLook. Though many consumers and regulators will certainly cry foul, the opportunity is one that may be hard for tech companies to resist.

Here’s another cool video that features mobile facial recognition from MIT professor Pattie Maes speaking at the TED Conference:

Related research from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

Report: Augmented Reality Today and Tomorrow

You’re subscribed! If you like, you can update your settings

  1. Liz, there’s more than mobile devices here. Apple could also implement facial recognition on the Mac. They all come with an embedded webcam. Think about facial login to your computer or to your iChat account. Useful for family (one machine per many users).

    1. Good point, thanks.

  2. Reminder – Google Goggles intentionally did not include facial recognition, but works on just about everything *today*, already included with every Android phone. Facial recognition is just an OTA update away should Google choose to do so.

    Shows just how far behind the game Apple is.

  3. Apple Said to Have Bought Facial-Recognition Firm – PC Magazine | MyGeist Monday, September 20, 2010

    [...] Company Polar RoseThe Mac ObserverApple Acquires Face Recognition Company [RUMOR]MashableApple May Go Where Google Won't: Facial RecognitionGigaOmCult of Mac -IntoMobile -VentureBeatall 28 news [...]

  4. Rumor: Apple Buying Facial Recognition Company Polar Rose – The Mac Observer | MyGeist Monday, September 20, 2010

    [...] Bought Facial-Recognition FirmPC MagazineApple Acquires Face Recognition Company [RUMOR]MashableApple May Go Where Google Won't: Facial RecognitionGigaOmCult of Mac -IntoMobile -VentureBeatall 33 news [...]

  5. Google has facial recognition in Picassa, so it’s not a lack of technology.

  6. » Blog Archive Monday, September 20, 2010

    [...] related news, Apple might look more seriously at facial recognition after its acquisition of startup Polar Rose. And there are reasons [...]

  7. I have seen the app myself at Tat’s office in Malmo back in Jan of this year. This is a real app and it works well. In fact we were thinking about doing some big integrations with them as well. Here is another video of the same idea : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZQtSY7ZQ4Y

  8. Facial recognition,at least in iPhoto is not all that precise. All of my dogs are properly identified, but a lot of relatives are considered to be two or more different people. In many cases,the difference is what hat a person is wearing, or what kind of hairdo a woman has

  9. wish Apple Inc. works on the technology shown in the TED video given and make it into a commercial product!

  10. I think Schmidt is right. That is just “too creepy”; we have privacy issues already. However I do think this technology could be applied for security entrance purposes.



  11. Has Apple stolen Facebook’s future with the launch of FaceTime? « excapite Monday, September 20, 2010

    [...] This (r)evolution in interactive media will become even more stimulating and invasive when we no longer have to point, click and discover who our next friend will be and we simply have to scan the crowd with our phone to discover who the “high value” (Think: Entertainment) social connections are in the room (See It’s not what you know, It’s not even who you know, It’s how you choose to connect. and GigaOm’s Apple May Go Where Google Won’t: Facial Recognition) [...]

  12. Apple Buys Swedish Facial Recognition Firm | eWEEK Europe UK Tuesday, September 21, 2010

    [...] Rose buy might be a good indication as to why, providing a differentiator for Apple. As GigaOm noted, Google has been reluctant to imbibe Goggles with facial recognition technology until it hashes out [...]

  13. Facial recognition is lame and over-rated, the best place to use it is for cops to name the people walking down public streets. Ho hum.
    There’s a whole heap of people who like to be recognised. Even Julian Assange does now.

  14. Hey Liz

    Pranav mistry actually gave the speech you would have included the original


  15. If we get to the point where we can find out information about someone before we start to have a conversation. There where do emotions and peoples feelings come into play? Someone who may have had to file bankruptcy a few years ago, most likely doesn’t bring it up during conversations.

    Another reason this can get out of control is if humans start to use physical attributes as security tokens. The rule is, build the best security and the world will develop a smarter hacker. If someone cracks your password now, you change your password. If someone can duplicate your fingerprint, how do you change yours?

Comments have been disabled for this post