Face for fashion

The rise of facial recognition

As we enter the final year of this decade, let’s think back to the end of the last. The year was 2009, the world was in full-on recession, Barack Obama was about to move into the White House and early smartphones like the iPhone 3GS were the height of technological wonder. Fingerprint scanning was a twinkle in an Apple engineer’s retina, and facial recognition was still a bit sci-fi. Little did we know that within a decade not only would you be willing to part with £1000 for a phone, but that phone would unlock with your face.

Facial recognition is the kind of tech that feels inherently futuristic. It’s a bit Blade Runner, a bit Minority Report, the kind of innovation that feels modern to some and scary to others. While user-friendly facial recognition technology like Face ID is new, the mechanics behind it have been a long time in the making. The method of breaking down a face into numerical coordinates was first established in the 1960’s. Turning this into working software started development when the first computer graphics cards came along at the end of the 80’s.

Since then, other applications for facial recognition include biometric passports and ePassport gates – holding you up on the way home from your holiday since 2011. In the world of social media, Facebook’s ability to recognise and tag friends in photos before you do has been in service since 2010, and the now-ubiquitous Snapchat filter has been turning teens into all manner of mammals for three long years.

The industry where facial-recognition tech has become very useful is beauty. Since the Great Recession beauty has boomed, growing to be worth $465 billion globally, and projected to grow to $750bn by 2020. This is fuelled by thousands of social media influencers, thriving direct-to-consumer brands like Glossier and every product by every brand being available on Amazon for anyone to buy at any time.

One barrier to growth however, is the inability to try on make-up before purchasing online. This problem is being solved by facial recognition, combining it with augmented reality to show what products will look like before purchase. Everyone from Covergirl to Estée Lauder have released facial-recognition apps to enable trial and encourage e-commerce sales. L’Oreal proved the true value of this when they acquired ModiFace, the developer behind most make-up apps for an undisclosed sum in 2018. Valued at €28bn, L’Oreal’s stable of brands has the power to bring facial-recognition to beauty fans the world over.

Despite applications in makeup, facial-recognition was originally developed with crime-fighting and surveillance in mind. By sifting through a database of thousands of faces in seconds, systems can save the police valuable time when conducting investigations. However as with many new technologies, a lack of regulation opens the door to abuse – does comparing a suspect to a thousand faces make each of those faces a suspect too? This is a question that legal bodies are debating with police departments across the United States. And they need answers fast, as increasingly widespread police body-cams, praised for their ability to make cops more accountable, could soon integrate facial recognition. This would blur the lines between human and artificial intelligence in policing.

In the UK, retailers are using artificial intelligence and facial recognition as a tool to fight shoplifting. Automated systems can recognise known thieves and alert security guards straight away – stores that have implemented this tech report a 20% drop in shoplifting. Supermarkets are investing in this technology to fight the 10% of annual profits lost to customers getting light-fingered at the self-checkout.

The future of facial recognition for brands could lie in making touchpoints and experiences more personalised but must strike the right balance between innovative and creepy. A sportswear brand could in theory fuse in-store CCTV footage with loyalty card data, then feed this into camera-equipped DOOH buys to display ads with a personalised message. However, whether this would send consumers running into store or running straight for the hills remains to be seen. As new technologies arrive to augment facial recognition, such as incoming smartphones which let you scroll down a webpage using only eye movements, it’s hard to say how we’ll be using it in 2019, let alone 2029.

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