Why face recognition isn’t scary…yet Friday, Jul 9 2010 

Courtesy of CNN.com:

(CNN) — Most of the time, Stacey Schlittenhard finds facial recognition technology to be extremely useful. When she uploads her family photos to the website Picasa, for instance, the program automatically tags her friends and family members. This lets her share the photos easily and saves her hours of organization.

But every now and then, the computer gets things flat wrong.

“Babies,” she says. “That’s the hardest thing. All babies kind of look alike — they all have little round faces. If I label one baby as my [2-year-old] son, it will label almost every baby as my son.”

In another instance, she said, Google’s Picasa thought a lollipop was her friend.

As she uses facial recognition programs, Schlittenhard is coming face to face with a fact that has been troubling computer scientists for decades:

It’s hard to teach a machine to know a human face — and it’s harder still to teach a computer to identify one face from any other.

That may be comforting news for people worried about governments using facial recognition systems to surveil the public — in effect, ending anonymity.

Technologists say those ideas exist only in science fiction movies — at least for now.

“I don’t think, currently, any facial recognition system is good enough for security purposes — not even close, actually,” said Yi Ma, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois, and a visiting researcher at Microsoft Research in China.

Using face recognition for surveillance or to identify people at borders and in airports has been tried in limited settings, Ma said, but it is at least a decade if not much further away from becoming real and reliable.

Meanwhile, a handful of consumer apps are using available technology to detect faces in family and party photos — where accuracy is not as important.

On July 1, for example, Facebook announced it would give its users the ability to use facial detection software to select faces from photos on the site.

Facebook’s new feature only selects faces. It doesn’t identify the people in photos by name. But in a blog post, Facebook product manager Sam Odio said that updates to this system will be coming.

“Stay tuned for future posts about other work on browsing, uploading and tagging,” he wrote in the post.

Some photo tools go further than Facebook by identifying people in photos automatically. Face.com, a company that builds the face-recognizing software behind apps like Photo Finder and PhotoTagger, identifies friends in your photos by comparing them with similar shots on Facebook.

The company’s CEO, Gil Hirsch, said the goal is to make photo sharing fast.

“Tagging the whole [photo] album — let’s say 200 photos — takes less than 30 seconds” when using Face.com technology, he said.

Google’s Picasa and Apple’s iPhoto perform similar functions. A Google test product called Goggles may also identify faces from mobile phones.

Michael Sipe, vice president of product development at Pittsburgh Pattern Recognition, a Carnegie Mellon University split-off company that makes face-recognizing software and is funded in part by the U.S. military, said the family photo programs are a response to the hassles of curating digital photo collections.

“In general, there’s this tsunami of visual information — images and video — and the tools that people have to make sense of all that information haven’t kept pace with the growth of the production of that information,” he said. “What we have is a tool to help extract meaning from that information by using the most important part of that media, which is people.”

Anil Jain, a distinguished professor of computer science at Michigan State University, said it’s still not easy, however, for computers to identify faces from photos — mostly because the photos people post to the internet are so diverse.

Computers get confused when a photo is too dark, if it’s taken from a weird angle, if the person is wearing a scarf, beard or glasses or if the person in the photo has aged significantly, he said.

Smiling can even be a problem.

“The face is like a deformable surface,” he said. “When you smile, different parts of the face get affected differently. It’s not just like moving some object from one position to another,” which would be easier for a computer to read.

The easiest faces for computers to identify, tech researchers said, are those that are photographed in bright light, with the person facing the camera and wearing a “neutral expression” on his or her face.

In general, facial recognition software works by comparing a picture or video of a face with a database of information about other faces. The software picks up on major facial features — like the distance between a person’s eyes or the location of his or her nose — and looks for an adequate match.

The software works more slowly and is thought to be less accurate when a large number of faces are compared, or when the source image is of low quality.

Still, privacy advocates worry about the future of facial recognition technology.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the motives behind the technology are what worry him.

Governments and corporations intend to use facial recognition software to track the public and to eliminate privacy, he said, noting that automatically identifying people in public in the U.S., when they are not suspected of a crime, could be a violation of constitutional rights.

When facial recognition comes to surveillance cameras, which are already in place, “you’re no longer racing through iPhoto to figure out how many pictures of Barbara you have,” Rotenberg said. “You’re walking around in public and facing cameras that know who you are. And I think that’s a little creepy.”

He said governments should stop investing in facial recognition technology, and the U.S. government should consider regulating how such information is used.

Some security systems that use facial recognition technology in crowds — a difficult feat, technologically — have been abandoned because they weren’t accurate enough. Tampa, Florida, for example, tried in 2001 to use facial recognition technology in conjunction with security cameras to curb crime in a nightclub district called Ybor City. The program was abandoned in 2003 because it was ineffective, according to news reports.

So, for now, facial recognition is mostly making inroads with shutter-happy consumers.

Schlittenhard, who uses Picasa to track friends and family members in her photos, says that for now, these programs are a big help.

“Nothing’s perfect,” she said of the fact that people and lollipops are sometimes misidentified by the free face recognition software. “I don’t expect it to be a cure-all to all my tagging woes, but it makes processing a lot quicker.”

Link: http://www.cnn.com/2010/TECH/innovation/07/09/face.recognition.facebook/index.html?hpt=Sbin

Gulf resorts get boost from July 4 holiday Thursday, Jul 8 2010 

Courtesy of CNN.com:

(CNN) — Tourism was “better than expected” over the Fourth of July holiday in some beach communities along the Gulf of Mexico, and the weekend provided a much-needed boost to areas hit hard by the oil disaster.

Holiday occupancy at Gulf Shores Plantation in Gulf Shores, Alabama, reached 60 percent, up from 40 percent to 50 percent in the months since the oil washed ashore.

After next weekend’s popular Jimmy Buffett concert, occupancy is expected to drop back down, said Pedro Mandoki, president of property management group Mandoki Hospitality.

“In a nutshell, this season is pretty well killed,” Mandoki said. Typically occupancy would reach 95 percent to 98 percent over the July Fourth holiday, which is usually the busiest weekend of the year.

Business is down about 50 percent among other area accommodations, but tourism officials are trying to make the best of it, said Mike Foster, a spokesman for the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Actually what we’re trying to do is get our industry to focus on the 50 percent that are here and making sure that they have a good time and go home and tell their people about it,” Foster said.

Reassuring potential visitors and maintaining the current occupancy numbers is important, he said.

Popular beach communities farther east fared better over the holiday.

“All in all, we feel like we did fairly well, all things considered,” said Dawn Moliterno, executive director of the Beaches of South Walton Tourism Development Council.

The coastal Florida area had occupancy rates ranging from 60 percent to 98 percent going into the Fourth of July weekend, Moliterno said.

Nearby in Destin, Florida, some properties were reporting 90-plus percent occupancy rates, said Shane Moody, president and CEO of the Destin Area Chamber of Commerce. Cumulative rates are difficult to gauge, but holiday business looked good.

“Based on traffic on the highways and all of the out-of-state plates, it was a very strong weekend,” Moody said.

“We’d love for it to continue to the middle of August, but right now if we can salvage July, I think that will help a lot of people.”

At Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, just east of Destin, occupancy was only down by about 10 percent from last year, said resort president John Russell.

“It was much better than we expected,” he said.

The resort’s 1,300 units do big business with groups in July, and this year’s bookings for those guests are a little ahead of last year, Russell said.

The non-group leisure travel segment, which makes up about 35 percent of July’s business, is down by half. But this year customers have been booking within a week of arrival, a much shorter window than last year when visitors typically booked three weeks in advance.

Travelers’ wait-and-see stance is nerve-wracking for resort properties.

“That’s the tension of it is you don’t have that business and you don’t know if you’re going to get it or not, but if you sell hard and you’re giving great service and you have good weather, you can get it,” Russell said.

“And we saw that in the Fourth of July.”

Link: http://www.cnn.com/2010/TRAVEL/07/07/july.fourth.gulf.tourism/index.html?hpt=Mid

Would you play ‘Pocket God’? Wednesday, Jul 7 2010 

Courtesy of CNN.com:

(CNN) — “Pocket God” started as a sprint, a week’s worth of work that was supposed to be practice for Dave Castelnuovo’s “real game.”

Instead, it became one of the most popular apps for the iPhone, selling millions of copies and spawning an online community that continues to grow as its creators expand into dolls, comic books and, now, a version for the iPad.

It’s one part video game, rife with juvenile humor, and one part demented virtual sandbox — letting players take care of a tribe of digital islanders or, more likely, dunk them in the ocean, toss them into volcanoes and subject them to other darkly humorous torment.

As of last week, the 99-cent app was nearing 3 million sales, along with another 440,000 purchases of in-game “skins” that let players change the look of the game.

“Pocket God” spent about a month this year as the top-selling iPhone app of all time before being outstripped by casual games “Doodle Jump” and “Angry Birds.”

Not bad for a project that Castelnuovo and designer Allan Dye finished between Christmas and New Year’s Eve 2008.

“We didn’t really have high hopes,” Castelnuovo said. “We kind of did something to make ourselves laugh. We said, ‘Whatever. … It’s kind of a throwaway. We’ll work on our real game afterward.’ ”

This year, they’ll look for similar success on the iPad, Apple’s slate-style computer heralded largely as an e-reader and gaming platform.

“Pocket God: Journey to Uranus” is expected to be released this fall, Castelnuovo said. The new version of the game will be available only for the iPad.

Preview images of the game show pygmies, “Pocket God’s” cartoonish and often-bewildered islanders, floating in space and orbiting planets.

Castelnuovo, who was a game developer for Sega and other companies before forming his own Bolt Creative, said the iPad version will feature more detailed graphics and an increased focus on mini-games.

“It’s a completely new game,” he said. “I don’t really believe in taking an existing title and cranking out an exact same clone of the game on every different console out there. If we have a really hardcore fan that has it on both iPad and iPhone, we want them to have a different experience.”

Scott Steinberg, founder of GameExec magazine and Game Industry TV, said “Pocket God” is at the forefront of the rise of casual video games.

“What we’re actually seeing is a casual-game genre, and a platform — the iPhone — that you wouldn’t typically associate with the so-called god games,” Steinberg said.

Steinberg, a freelance gaming blogger for CNN.com, said “Pocket God” harkens to the success of “god games” like “The Sims” — the best-selling PC game of all time — and even earlier titles like “Populous” and “Ultimate Domain.”

“In some sense, it’s just really an offshoot of sandbox play, when you were lining up toy soldiers and castles, then knocking them all down and building them up again,” he said.

The creators of “Pocket God” help keep the game relevant with their frequent updates, Steinberg said, adding bite-size adventures that keep players interested until the next update comes along. (“Pocket God” had been updated 32 times as of Monday).

“When it comes to games, sometimes less is more,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a months-long, world-spanning epic journey that you need to master 67 keyboard strokes to enjoy. Sometimes, a little instant gratification is what the world wants.”

Castelnuovo said “Pocket God” has players of all ages, but the majority are high-school and college age.

He credits the game’s success to not worrying too much early on about how it would be received.

“We made something for us,” he said. “We didn’t really think about the audience. We really didn’t think about the business potential.

“I think a lot of companies, with games in particular, think, ‘What is somebody else going to buy?’ They start to second-guess that instead of building something that they themselves respond to.”

Since “Pocket God” was released, Castelnuovo and Dye have stayed engaged in their player community, largely through the game’s official blog. They began making changes based on player feedback.

Early on, they removed some images from the game that Pacific Islander groups said they considered offensive. They briefly stopped calling their island characters “pygmies” but returned to it, Castelnuovo said, after being assured that it wasn’t considered an insulting term.

He also credits the game’s twisted humor. Updates have frequently had snicker-inducing names like “Shake that App,” “Flipping the Bird” and “Great Job, Ice Hole.”

Players can subject the pygmies to earthquakes, thunderstorms and shark attacks — and those are some of the tamer possibilities.

“I think people really respond to the comic characters, the edgy humor,” Castelnuovo said. “You see that all over the media today — whether it’s Sarah Silverman or ‘South Park.’ I guess for the kids’ part, ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ is kind of edgy.

People want to rebel. They want to be bad, but safely be bad.”

A comic book from independent publisher Ape Entertainment and a limited run of plush pygmy dolls are on the way. There’s word from the company that a “Pocket God” app for Google’s Android system also is in the works.

And, Castelnuovo promises, that’s just the “tip of the iceberg” — an iceberg that, no doubt, will be populated by freezing islanders.

Link: http://www.cnn.com/2010/TECH/gaming.gadgets/07/07/pocket.god.ipad/index.html?hpt=Sbin

Fight BP oil spill with Xbox Tuesday, Jul 6 2010 

Courtesy of Tomsguide.com:

Try your hand at this totally unrealistic spin on a real-world crisis.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill (the one BP is blamed for) continues to dominate worldwide headlines. Here’s your chance to try out Crisis in the Gulf, an Xbox game that sees you placing specialized submarines to destroy blobs of oil as they try to reach the surface.

Crisis in the Gulf is simply a tower defense game. Ships that shoot high-caliber rounds, torpedoes, and even lasers are at your disposal. Can you stem the tide of the leak, even at the most difficult “Gulf Oil Crisis” level? Find out for the low price of $1 or 80 Microsoft points.

link: http://www.tomsguide.com/us/bp-oil-spill-xbox-game,news-7328.html

The near-future of TV? Thursday, Jul 1 2010 

Courtesy of CNN.com:

(CNN) — With all the free video on the web these days, or compelling new video devices such as Apple’s iPad, it’s tempting to get excited about the day you can fire your cable or satellite TV company and get all your entertainment from Internet streams.

But having spent a few years as an early adopter trying to do this — a “Hulu household,” I called it — and recently caving in and resubscribing to cable, it’s clear to me that the future of TV is simply more TV.

At least for the next several years, the way most people consume video in their homes isn’t going to change much. There may be new gizmos and services to complement or extend your home video entertainment. But the vast majority of television is still going to be watched the old-fashioned way — on a TV set, from a cable or satellite provider.

Case in point: My most recent experiment with mobile TV, a technology that’s been hyped for years but still hasn’t delivered.

Last weekend, I brought my new iPad to the gym, excited to stream some of the afternoon Chicago Cubs game while I worked out.

That’s one of the nice things about Major League Baseball’s “At Bat” iPad app. If you subscribe to the league’s MLB.TV web TV service, you can stream all the live baseball you want to your iPad.

And, in theory, that’s the beauty of the iPad 3G: You don’t need a wi-fi hotspot to access the internet, and can watch live video — such as baseball games, Netflix movies or ABC television shows — anywhere.

But the reality is that the technology just isn’t there yet. After a few seconds of watching, my screen went blank, indicating AT&T’s 3G signal couldn’t keep my video stream alive. Then it switched me to a fuzzier stream of the game, which used less bandwidth. And then it went blank again. I tried to reboot the stream. It worked for a few seconds and then went blank again.

Based on my experience, today’s 3G networks just don’t always have the capacity to reliably handle steady streams of video. It may work sometimes, in some areas, but it’s not reliable.

So I plugged my headphones into the TV set on my elliptical machine — powered by a cable feed of some sort — and watched the rest of a World Cup game. Not as futuristic, but at least it worked.

I experienced different challenges at home while trying to be a “Hulu household.” There was no shortage of sources for streaming video content or new gizmos to try to hook up to my TV to support streaming video.

But if you enjoy even watching a modest amount of video, it’s a lot of work always having to figure out which sites offer which video, how much it costs, which gadget it supports to hook up with the TV and how the video quality would look on a hi-def TV.

And the biggest problems are the small problems: Figuring out what to watch next, and actually going through the relatively easy motions to make it happen. Don’t overlook the simplicity and serendipity of linear television channels, which always have something cued up to watch next.

TV just works. It’s always there, and that’s what people love about it.

So that’s why Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and co-founder of HDNet, cable network HDNet, isn’t crazy when he argues that “The future of TV is … TV.” Despite all the talk about the internet disrupting TV providers, it isn’t happening yet.

A few supporting facts from Nielsen:

People who subscribe to cable and broadband have increased to 66 percent of the U.S. population, up from 55 percent in 2008. Meanwhile, the percentage of the population that only subscribes to the internet — and doesn’t subscribe to cable TV — has stayed the same around 4 percent. Online video streaming accounts for less than 2.5 percent of total video consumption.

So when are Google, Apple and everyone else in Silicon Valley going to come and steamroll the cable industry with futuristic products and payment or advertising models? That’s a good question, and we’re still waiting for the answer.

Apple has tried to invade the living room for a few years already with Apple TV, and it’s been one of the company’s biggest flops. Meanwhile, the only thing that’s really exciting about Google’s new Google TV product is that it works with your existing TV service. This suggests that it’s not going to replace your cable subscription for a long time.

Over the next decade, technology will likely enhance TV in the living room, making it better, more interesting and possibly more social. New devices such as the iPad and faster wireless networks may eventually make mobile video a more realistic proposition.

But the Internet isn’t going to knock the TV industry out of business any time soon. And the future of TV is still TV.

Link: http://www.cnn.com/2010/TECH/web/07/01/future.tv.frommer/index.html?hpt=Sbin