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Face recognition comes to Flickr

New feature launched by Swedish start-up Polar Rose automatically groups Flickr photos using facial recognition technology. The company hopes Facebook and others will lean on its tech.

Polar Rose's facial recognition feature correctly identified half of the photos in this batch of Flickr images.
Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Without any big fuss, a face-recognition feature has been added to Flickr.

The new feature was launched recently by Swedish start-up Polar Rose. It lets users import all their photos from a Flickr account to an account on Polar Rose, where the images are then automatically assembled into groups dedicated to various individuals.

As with similar features in Google Picasa and Apple iPhoto, names eventually show up next to faces in the photos once the user has identified the faces. The labels then get sent back to the Flickr account. Polar Rose, founded by Swedish mathematician Jan Erik Solem in 2004, intends to license its technology to numerous Web sites.

"No other company wants to offer its face-recognition technology to all other sites," said Solem, now CTO of the company.

Polar Rose is also ready to import photos from Facebook accounts, but there's a snag.

"Facebook has a rule that downloaded data cannot be stored more than 24 hours," Solem said.

And since thumbnails are stored in the user's Polar Rose account, the start-up won't immediately be applying the feature to Facebook photos.

Already in place, though, is the authentication function Facebook Connect, which lets users log in with their credentials from Facebook. A friends list can also be imported from Facebook and can be used when identifying faces in photos from Flickr.

Solem won't say whether there's a commercial deal afoot with Flickr. "Of course we talk with them," he said.

Flickr, for its part, has kept a low profile on the subject.

"Flickr has the second most popular API on the Web," said a representative for Yahoo, which owns Flickr. "Polar Rose is one of the many third-party developers using the Flickr API to innovate and present public Flickr data in new and unique ways."

Solem said the launch of face recognition in Picasa last September, and in Apple iPhoto in January, increased interest in his company's technology. "It's a feature that lots of sites are looking for now, but that they cannot build themselves," he said.

As of March, Polar Rose had agreements with minor Web sites such as Glowfoto.com, Jalbum.net, and 23hq.com, and with the open-source software Gallery.

"But we don't have enough revenues for something substantial," Solem said then, confirming that the company was looking for more venture capital beyond the $5.1 million invested in 2006 by VC firm Nordic Venture Partners.

Polar Rose's technology is based on matching 3D models of faces--one of three established methods for facial recognition. It was first launched as a plug-in to Web browsers in June 2007, letting users identify faces in any photo on the Web. Users could also click on a face in any photo on the Web and get a suggestion on who it is.

The plug-in still exists, but although some 60 million identified faces are stored in a database, users rarely get to know who's who in a certain picture as Polar Rose only reveals names when the identification is highly reliable, representing only 15 percent of the stored faces.