Augmented Publicy

One of the most common social embarassments is forgetting someone’s name, and so the idea of some application to identify people when you meet them is very interesting.

TAT (The Astonishing Tribe) has demoed a cell-phone app that does just that:

– Erika Jonietz, Augmented Identity

TAT built the augmented ID demo, called Recognizr, to work on a phone that has a five-megapixel camera and runs the Android operating system. A user opens the application and points the phone’s camera at someone nearby. Software created by Swedish computer-vision firm Polar Rose then detects the subject’s face and creates a unique signature by combining measurements of facial features and building a 3-D model. This signature is sent to a server where it’s compared to others stored in a database. Providing the subject has opted in to the service and uploaded a photo and profile of themselves, the server then sends back that person’s name along with links to her profile on several social networking sites, including Twitter or Facebook. The Polar Rose software also tracks the position of the subject’s head–TAT uses this information to display the subject’s name and icons for the Web links on the phone’s screen without obscuring her face.


Polar Rose’s algorithms can run on the iPhone and on newer Android phones, says the company’s chief technical officer and founder, Jan Erik Solem. The augmented ID application uses a cloud server to do the facial recognition primarily because many subjects will be unknown to the user (so there won’t be a matching photo on the phone), but also to speed up the process on devices with less processing power.


Gärdenfors says that TAT has taken potential privacy concerns with the technology seriously from the beginning. “Facial recognition can be a kind of scary thing, and you could use it for a lot of different purposes.” For that reason, the company designed Recognizr as a strictly opt-in service: people would have to upload a photo and profile of themselves, and associate that with different social networks before anyone could use the service to identify them. “You should only be able to look at people who have signed up for this,” Gärdenfors says.

Yes, there are issues involved with identity, but software of this sort will soon be running on all our phones – or VR glasses, more likely – that will rely on information available from published photos. So, if you pass Tom Hanks or your senator on the street, you will be alerted.

The law is very weird about public identity. Many states have laws prohiting us from wearing masks or hoods that conceal our identity from the police:

Man arrested for wearing Grinch mask

Associated Press | May 27, 2005

WHEELING, W.Va. – A man is in trouble with the law for wearing a Grinch mask in public.

Norman Gray, who was stopped by police on Tuesday, was told to take the mask off and not put it on again.

Police say Gray took the mask off and asked why he couldn’t wear it. After officers told him that wearing masks in public is illegal, he reportedly put the mask back on and said he didn’t believe it.

Gray was then arrested and the mask confiscated.

Wearing a mask or hood in public is a misdemeanor under West Virginia law, punishable by a fine of up to $500, up to a year in jail, or both. Prosecutors say masks can hinder efforts by law enforcement officials to identify criminal suspects.

Children are allowed to wear masks. There are also exceptions for safety gear, theatrical productions and Halloween.

The state of New York seems to have a similar law, and other localities as well. It is a class 6 felony in Virginia.

The point is that we don’t have the right, in general, of concealing our identities. We also don’t have the right to prohibit others from taking our pictures in public: this is why we can take pictures of public spaces without having to get releases from all the people in the shot.

So, at least in America, we can expect that software will be widely available and in use that will allow us to know the identity – and other publicly available information – about just about anyone we are looking at, or are pointing our cell phones at.

This is going to be one of those situations that will surprise people, just like Googling did ten years ago. I recall a situation where a woman rear-ended me, and then asked if we could deal with the damages without going through her insurance company. I agreed. She gave me her name and a phone number, and mentioned she was headed out of town for a few days. When she hadn’t contacted me after a few days, I left voicemail, but got no response. I googled her, discovered she was a relative prominant figure, and in a few minutes I discovered a website where her email was available. I contacted her through email, and she responded, okaying the repairs (like $900, I think). When we talked again – when I was arranging to get the check – she said that she didn’t think that she had given me her email. I told her I googled it, and she audibly inhaled. Perhaps she had some run in with stalky creepsters in the past, but I was just concerned that she might have been scamming me. At any rate, she was obviously surprised that I could find her email – and home address, by the way – without any trouble at all.

Augmented publicy, where applications render all sorts of information about us to others in the course of everyday interactions, will be a commonplace in the next few years:

  • The clerk in the clothing store will know who you are, and will have access to dozens of photos from flickr, trying to get a handle on your clothing style.
  • The bartender will know who you are, and social networking analysis tools will be spidering your twitter stream, and she will ask ‘Do you know Carlos McBean?’, and you will say, ‘Yes! I do.’ And you will give her a bigger tip, without connecting the dots.
  • At a company meeting, an executive from your company’s UK operations will walk up and say ‘Great job on the Jones project, Carla,’ and shake your hand.
  • You will start work at a new job, and thanks to your iGlasses and your company’s corporate Facebook, you will know everyone in the elevator.

What seems intrusive at first will become a commonplace, and for those who come to rely on augmented publicy it will be a godsend.

It will be strange to have to turn off this functionality when we visit privacy-oriented locales – like Sweden, perhaps – where you will only have access to information about those who have opted in to such services, and not to everyone. It will be like walking down the street today and seeing people’s faces pixelated to conceal their identity.

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