Google: "Goggles Does NOT Do Face Recognition"

But Here's How It Would Work

4 min read

The big news out of Hot Chips on Monday was Google's promise to have its Goggles visual search app ready for the iPhoneby the end of 2010. Google Goggles project lead David Petrous also provided the inside scoop into how Goggles deciphers your images in the cloud. But the most interesting takeaway from Petrous' talk was his repeated insistence that Google Goggles does not do facial recognition—interspersed by a long tutorial on how well it would work if it did.

Augmenting your reality
Augmented reality is a step toward intuitive search, like having an insightful personal assistant following your every move, answering not just "what am I looking at?" but intuiting exactly what you want to know about it and why. For a machine, contextualizing and anticipating what you actually want is pretty difficult. Heck, it’s no picnic for a human. With that in mind, pointing your Android phone at the Eiffel Tower is pretty straightforward because there are only so many actions associated with that. 1) Here’s what you’re looking at. 2) Here’s some historical and technical information about the Eiffel Tower. 3) Here are directions to there from where you are standing.

It gets harder when you're pointing at something ambiguous. Petrous demonstrated this point by capturing a Goggles image of a random old book called "Basic Machines and How They Work."

6.5 seconds later three results came back. The first was the book result. The second was some more information about the book. The third was the interesting part: From the picture on the cover of the book, the Goggles infrastructure had figured out to put a link to “manual transmission linkage.” The whole audience swooned and clapped.

"A picture is worth a thousand words. How do we pick the best three?"
Here’s how it works. You take the picture. You stare in wonder as a laser beam scans the image, distracting you while you wait the 6.5 seconds for the Google cloud to chew on your image.

During those 6.5 seconds, the image is sent to a Google front door, which passes it off to the Goggles root, which in turn sprays the image in parallel to many different, discretely housed "recognition disciplines." These are visual search engines that specialize in narrow fields such as barcodes, landmarks, DVDs, wine labels, text, logos, and so on. Petrous' slide showed about 20 of these but it’s not clear whether the diagram was representative or for illustration purposes only.

All these discrete entities then vote on what they think the image is, and the Goggles root, electoral-college style, tallies the votes in some esoteric fashion and returns the results to the user 6.5 seconds later.

So what's it good and bad at? "Given a new photo, we can recognize the image 57 percent of the time," Petrous said. Google has bagged and tagged a database of 1 billion recognizable images at this point. It nails most corporate logos, notably Coca Cola. It does less well with minimalist icons like the Nike swoosh. Where it does really badly? Black cats. No kidding. In fact, it is easier for Google Goggles to recognize a specific face than to identify a black cat.

Not That Google Goggles Does Face Recognition

Google Goggles does not do face recognition. Have I mentioned that? Petrou mentioned it no fewer than four times (specifically name-checking any journalists in the audience). But he also made sure to mix his message by mentioning that Google can do face recognition. And pretty well, too!

"The more labeled samples you have—say pictures on social networks—the better we can do," Petrous said. For all his protestations that Goggles wouldn’t use facial recognition, he sure could not help himself from bragging about how awesome Goggles could hypothetically do at picking your face out of a crowd. "There’s a sweet spot, around 17 images, when this technology, given a new picture of you, will rank you in the top ten results 50 percent of the time.

When you feed it 50 pictures (not difficult given the horrifying new Facebook suggestion to tag random images of people you recognize) you will appear in the top 5 results half the time.

"We do it well but it’s not deployed." Is that a threat or a promise?
Ominously, Petrous blew right past a slide titled "Must Be Deployed Responsibly." I guess he thought Hot Chips wasn’t the audience for that kind of soft-focus Lifetime Television for Women hand-wringing.

Not true!

I heard a lot of muttering at lunch after the session from engineers referring to Google as Big Brother. Several people independently brought up the Wifi sniffing fiasco.

Implications? That’s not an MP, that’s a YP (your problem)
Opening up the talk, Petrou said "society may be ready for this technology, or it might not."

In his book Halting State, British sci-fi writer Charles Stross laid out what will likely be the first implementation of Augmented Reality.

In the book, law enforcement officials are issued standard AR glasses, which can be tweaked to provide a transparent overlay the way you can turn on and off layers in Google maps. Except, what they see is not just maps and landmarks, but the dossier and criminal history of every person who crosses their path.

What would you need to make this sci-fi a reality? 1) A Google Goggles-type back-end that incorporates face recognition; 2) some jaunty AR specs; and 3) access to the databases that contain the public records and personal information shady aggregator web now sites offer up for $49.95.

Now consider the plain (unaugmented) reality:

1)  Petrous tells us that already exists.
2)  Augmented reality glasses have just gotten much better.
3) Right now, the query latency is determined in part by network delays (6.5 seconds comes from 3G, where Wfi offers 1.2 seconds): The coming 4G network that MindSpeed described at Hot Chips will make the data stream much faster.

"I don't care, I’m not doing anything wrong," a commenter posted on my recent rant about social networking and the surveillance state. "No one wants to find me." Sure they do, Gerry! If someone can break into a database, they will be well-served by a centralized repository of all your pertinent information. 

What law enforcement (or Google) aggregateth, the hacker taketh away.

The Conversation (0)

The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.