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Before you blush, call HP

Is HP's new cosmetics color-matching scheme just a dumb idea, a Machiavellian patent ploy, or something in between?

Smile and let HP pick your foundation colors

Color matching and management is a serious technology hurdle for retailers, online and off. Navy blue is frequently indistinguishable from black in stores, rust-colored shirts ordered online turn out to be bright orange when you open the box and that seafoam green paint that looked so good on the chip makes your living room look like a kelp bed.

These are not the problems that HP Labs announced it has addressed with its new color-matching technology.

No, HP Labs sent out a press release touting its ability to base cosmetics recommendations on your cameraphone self-portrait, and seeking business partners who wished to capitalize on this paradigm shift for choosing a foundation color. Here's how HP describes it: Instead of sitting down with a consultant at a beauty counter, a shopper photographs herself using a mobile phone camera and while holding a specially designed color chart. The person then sends the photo as an MMS (multimedia message) to an advisory service. That system locates the person's face within the image and color corrects the image for camera and lighting discrepancies.

Skin pixels are extracted from the color corrected image of the person's face and then compared to an existing database of previously captured and analyzed images of skin tones of real people. In a matter of seconds, people using the service receive a text message response with a recommendation on the shades of makeup that are best suited to their complexion.

Join me as I count the levels of silliness HP plumbs with this idea.

  1. Where's the problem? The pitch reminds me of the Friends episode (The One With the Metaphorical Tunnel) in which Joey's on an infomercial for an accessory that enables users to master the difficult-to-open milk carton. Yes, there are a bunch o' colors to choose from, but you can usually narrow it down to the best few by holding them up to your face, which is what HP is essentially doing via long distance. Is this system supposed to replace the third parties who traditionally weigh in--the salesperson? Your best friend? Most buyers who'd need help will still need someone to vote on the final choice. And wouldn't a more sensible idea be to download the photo to a kiosk where you could "try on" different colors virtually before the traditional ritual of dabbing them on your arms and face.
  2. Where's the new tech? You're sending off a photo for remote color correction and a comparison of the pixels to a lookup table. Quick--run off and file a patent application! True, nobody's done it with a cameraphone before, but who in their right mind would attempt to use one as a colorimeter? They have notoriously small color gamuts and dynamic ranges. I barely trust my phone to reproduce large objects correctly, much less distinguish between olive-toned and peaches-and-cream.
  3. Is this really what HP's Research Lab is doing? Or is corporate pressure to monetize R&D investment making everyone nuts? I've met some really smart technologists from HP, but I've also noticed--at least when it comes to digital cameras--it tends to concentrate on ways of making bad photos look better than on finding ways to take better photos. (Unfortunately, it's not alone on this.) While there's a definite synergy with cameraphones, I have to question its worth as a viable long-term research strategy.
  4. Is this the (il)logical result of the patent system taken to its extreme? Is it possible HP is staking out this ludicrous territory in order to be able to claim first dibs on sending a photo over the network for remote comparison of the pixels to a lookup table? A spokesperson for HP Labs did tell me recently that they're going to file applications on every application they could possibly think of for their technologies. The cosmetics angle could just be a smokescreen hiding some really cool things they're working on. This last strategy certainly isn't silly, though; it's scary.

Then again, perhaps I'm just overthinking an ill-thought-out idea rushed to press by a harried PR department. After all, maybe there are people out there who need HP to tell them friends don't let friends wear blue eye shadow.