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Playing around with iPhoto's 'Faces'

The face recognition feature in iPhoto '09 did really well overall. Except for that one time it thought my friend was a lemur.

Face recognition technology isn't perfect yet.

That's certainly clear when using the "Faces" feature that is built into the recently released iPhoto '09.

Memo to iPhoto: Former colleague Joris Evers may be a great guy, but he's not the Great One. Ina Fried/CNET News

Sure, the product does reasonably well at finding your friends and family in your photo collection. Tag a few photos by name and iPhoto comes up with other suggestions, often recognizing photos that are taken years apart and with vastly different looks. Heck, iPhoto even spotted me when I was a different gender.

The science behind face recognition is complex and still evolving. In general, face recognition software looks for predictable patterns--characteristics and proportions that stay constant from one photograph to another, things like the distance between the eyes or from the eyes to the mouth.

Even with things where the science is today, having help--any help--with the tedious task of tagging photos is welcome. And iPhoto can certainly find plenty of matches in your library, even if it won't spot them all.

But the real genius part is how Apple has made the process fun, even when the results aren't perfect.

Early speech recognition was also hit or miss, but it was painful to have to scream at a computer while it constantly misunderstood what you were trying to say. With face recognition, at least as built into iPhoto, the goofs are what make it fun.

The software frequently suggested that my contemporary friends and family were actually my 80-something cousin, my 90-something great aunt, or both. iPhoto also confused Bill Gates with our friend's 3-year-old. And among the suggestions for former CNET colleague Joris Evers was a shot of Wayne Gretzky that I had taken at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

My favorite, though, was when iPhoto was trying to find other photos of my friend Rachel and included a picture of a lemur from a zoo in Sweden.

To be fair, iPhoto starts off with what seem like sure matches and then tries to loosen things up a bit to find more matches. Often as one gets to the bottom of the list of suggestions there are more misses than hits.

But no matter how far off iPhoto is, it just takes two clicks to tell iPhoto it's off base (and one to confirm the photo is indeed who iPhoto predicted).

The process for tagging photos is somewhat addictive. After confirming a few photos, one can go back to the Faces index page and Apple will come up with more suggestions, seemingly refined by the latest tagging efforts.

I think I would like the Faces feature better if it were more accurate, but I'm not sure. I certainly hope Apple never gets it too perfect. Then I'd have to find something else to harass my friends about.


Face time with iPhoto '09
CNET News reporter Ina Fried tells editor Leslie Katz how iPhoto '09's face recognition fared during a test run.
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