Apple May Go Where Google Won’t: Facial Recognition

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 (s AAPL) 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 (s YHOO) 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 (s GOOG) 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, which started out in facial recognition but moved to image recognition for product search.

But now Apple (s AAPL) 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