Lambda Labs, an early stage startup out of San Francisco, is preparing to release a facial recognition API for developers working on Google Glass apps. The API will be available to interested developers within a week, company co-founder Stephen Balaban says. The move comes on the heels of a Congressional inquiry into Google’s new wearable technology, still very much in the prototype phase.
The startup’s facial recognition API, launched into beta last year, is already used by 1,000 developers, including several major international firms. It now sees over 5 million API calls per month, and is growing at 15 percent month-over-month. Balaban also says that the company has been cash flow positive since November.
Now that same API has been tailored specifically for Google Glass Apps to enable both facial and object recognition.
Applied to Glass, the technology will enable apps such as “remember this face,” “find your friends in a crowd,” ”networking event interest matching,” “intelligent contact books,” and more, Balaban explains. (You can see what apps developers are tweeting about here.)
As potentially amazing / horrifying as that technology sounds, any apps using the technology couldn’t do so in real-time – that is, you couldn’t just walk around automatically recognizing people you see through Glass. The way Google’s Mirror API works right now is that you first have to snap a photo, send it to the developer’s servers, then get the notification back. The lag time on that would be several seconds at least, and would depend on how fast you could take a photo and share it. A forthcoming Glass software development kit (SDK), though, may change that.
“There is nothing in the Glass Terms of Service that explicitly prevents us from doing this. However, there is a risk that Google may change the ToS in an attempt to stop us from providing this functionality,” Balaban says. ”This is the first face recognition toolkit for Glass, so we’re just not sure how Google, or the privacy caucus, will react.”
The privacy caucus he’s referring to has to do with the congressional inquiry from earlier this month where eight members of Congress reached out to Google CEO Larry Page with over half a dozen questions about Glass’ capabilities and the potential impacts to user privacy. The Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, a group led by Texas Republican Joe Barton, wanted to know if Glass would collect data from users without their consent, whether or not Google would consider privacy before approving third-party apps, and a host of other things.
One of those questions was whether or not Glass would have support for facial recognition. That’s something Steve Lee, Glass director of product management has already answered. In a statement offered to The New York Times, he replied, “We’ve consistently said that we won’t add new face recognition features to our services unless we have strong privacy protections in place.”
That’s not a solid “no,” of course. It’s more of a “no, for now.” Glass is simply too new of a technology to begin limiting what it will or will not do, at least in such definitive terms.
Facial recognition, however, doesn’t appear to be specifically prohibited in Google’s API policies, which inform Glass developers what they can and can’t do in their applications. That means, for now at least, Lambda’s facial recognition API for Glass developers would be permitted.
The only cause that would impact its use, according to Google’s policies, is one that says Glass is “not intended for use in connection with applications and services that might be subject to industry-specific privacy regulations.”
Obviously, lawmakers could still enact such a policy, if they chose to do so.
“Assuming Google and Joe Barton’s Privacy Caucus don’t attempt to stop us, [the API] will be available to everybody within the week,” Balaban says.
Google, it should be noted, has long since had the technology to build apps capable of facial recognition itself, but has always tread very carefully to not incite a privacy backlash.
In 2011, there were reports that Google was developing a mobile app that would allow users to snap pictures of people’s faces to access their personal information. That app never arrived, but facial recognition has since made an appearance within Google’s photo-sharing service Google+ Photos (previously Picasa), where users can now opt in to have their face recognized. This makes finding “pictures and videos of you easy,” explains the company’s documentation on the technology.
Perhaps one day, users will be able to “opt in” to having Glass apps identify their faces, too?
Time – and Congress’s reaction – will tell.
Image credit: Glass concept from Jack Morgan on Dribble; Additional reporting: Frederic Lardinois
Last week we reported that Facebook is in advanced talks to buy Israel-born social traffic and mapping app Waze for up to $1 billion, but that there were still some questions over whether Waze’s R&D efforts would remain in their home country, or move to Facebook’s HQ in California. Haaretz has now advanced the story, saying that the current deal has it that Waze’s R&D will stay in Israel, where it will also continue to be a registered, tax-paying company, while Waze’s Palo Alto office will move over to Facebook and Menlo Park. While reports are now swirling that Apple could still come into the negotiating room again (if you believe Apple was ever there in the first place), the deal raises some interesting details and debate about what is happening in the Israeli startup scene currently.
In a country more renowned for its B2B and technical exits — Cisco’s $5 billion NDS deal being one example from last year, but so are Facebook’s two previous Israeli acquisitions, feature phone interface designer Snaptu and facial recognition company Face.com — this is one of the first big consumer tech exits in Israel. Yaron Samid, founder of the Israeli tech startup network TechAviv and himself a serial entrepreneur, notes that this is in fact the first $1 billion exit for such a company. Waze’s rapid rise over the last couple of years, he notes, has already been having an impact on the community, with the exit being the final flourish.
“The inspiration has already taken hold like wildfire among the countless Israeli founders who’ve been told that they can’t produce a billion-dollar consumer Internet/Mobile company – and now know that they all can,” he writes. (He also takes the opportunity for a little self promotion, claiming that he’d been one of those suggesting current CEO Noam Bardin after he couldn’t take the job himself.)
There are numerous Israeli Startups that could get a lift from the ‘new order’ where consumer startups, not just B2B and enterprise, can emerge from the country. These could include Wix, GetTaxi, Fiverr, Bizzabo, MyHeritage, Wishi and Mobli, among others.
Facebook Israel foothold
The other interesting development here is that this could give Facebook a foothold into the Israeli tech world. Unlike Google, Facebook does not have an operation in Israel, which could well create useful ‘boots on the ground’ in a nation renowned for its engineering talent. This would make it the second Facebook development arm outside the U.S., after London.
But the suggestion so far is that Waze will remain an independent company operating in Israel, with R&D staying in Israel, while the business side, including CEO Noam Bardin, is expected to move over to Facebook U.S. HQ.
But, there is a cultural clash on the horizon here.
Some local players are already coming out against this idea. Local VC and TechCrunch contributor Roi Carthy says he would like to see Facebook shutter Waze’s local presence, and relocate the tech personnel to Palo Alto.
Because, he says, although the Waze R&D center could be a beach-head for a full-blown Facebook R&D shop, and thus good for Facebook, “it could have catastrophic effects upon local early stage startups’ ability to compete on salaries and benefits.”
His argument is that if a big company like Facebook stays away, then the Israeli tech ecosystem is more likely to be able to “push more innovation” towards Silicon Valley, which would be in the “best interest of both the local startup industry and Facebook.”
Certainly, such a large acquisition inside such a relatively small country could well change the successful dynamics of the Israeli eco-system. If it became a mere engineering centre for Facebook, Apple and Google, the implication is that we might not see quite the same levels of startup activity as we’ve seen emerge in the past from Israel.
That is almost certainly overstating the ‘problem’. It’s more likely that the experience of being inside these big tech companies in Israel is more likely to create a virtuous circle of new entrepreneurs, spin-outs and new projects. Plus, more eyes and ears on the ground for potential acquisitions.
Haaretz is also reporting some details about the financial terms of the deal. Anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent of the $1 billion price (the current offer) will be in Facebook shares, with the rest in cash. Israeli investors woud prefer more cash; others prefer Facebook shares. Specific investors like Li Ka-Shing will land $116 million from the deal after investing $30 million via the Horizon Ventures Fund along with Kleiner Perkins less than two years ago. Microsoft will pull in $102 million after investing of $25 million in December 2010.
Facebook appears to be close to making another billion-dollar acquisition to once again ramp up its mobile efforts: according to three reports in the Israeli press at Calcalist and sister publication Ynet and The Marker (all in Hebrew), Facebook has approached Waze, the social mapping and traffic app maker, and is now in advanced due dilligence on a deal that Calcalist puts at between $800 million and $1 billion. The negotiations between the social network and crowdsourced mapping app apparently began six months ago.
We have been digging too and have picked up confirmation from a source that both sides have privately confirmed that the deal is happening, and that the pricing reported first by the Calcalist is accurate. The main issue right now, the source said, is whether to keep Waze in Israel or take it to the U.S., as Facebook did with two previous Israel acqusitions. Those were of feature phone interface developer Snaptu (bought for up to $70 million in March 2011) and facial recognition specialist Face.com (bought in June 2012 for $50-60 million).
But! Facebook and Waze have already come back to us with flat non-responses. “We do not comment on rumors or speculation about the business,” a spokesperson at Waze told TechCrunch. The company tells me that it currently has over 47 million active users — more than double what it had in July last year when it reported 20 million.
“We won’t comment on speculation,” a Facebook spokesperson said.
However, if the rumors are true, adding Waze to Facebook makes a lot of sense in some respects: Facebook has been putting a lot of effort into its mobile business, which now has 751 million monthly active users as of March 31, 2013, an increase of 54% year-over-year. That puts mobile on a faster track at the moment than Facebook’s desktop business, which currently has 1.11 billion MAUs, an increase of 23% year-over-year.
The most recent of its movements on mobile services is Facebook Home, an Android-based launcher that lets a user embed a connection into their Facebook social graph across their entire mobile experience with services like the ever-present Chat Heads. On another track, Facebook has for years now been building up a business around location-based check-ins, which also include local deals. A service like Waze, with social networking and crowdsourcing of information part of its DNA, fits perfectly into that landscape.
This would not be Facebook’s first 10-figure acquisition in the mobile space. Just over one year ago, leading up to its IPO, Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion, a deal that had a large portion in stock and ended up being worth more like $747 million when it finally got approved. That, too, gave Facebook a big leap into mobile services: while Instagram these days also has a handy way of viewing profiles on the desktop web, at its heart it is a wildly popular mobile app that for many works as a social network in its own right.
Nor would this be the first time that Waze has been in the crosshairs of acquisition rumors. One deal that was hotly reported by many, including us, involved Apple buying the mapping company. Of course that ended up not happening, although the two clearly were talking a lot because Waze ended up being a significant part of Apple Maps. The startup has raised $67 million in VC funding from backers including Kleiner Perkins, BlueRun Ventures, Magma Venture Partners, Vertex Venture Capital, and Li Ka-shing.
Facebook earlier this year reported that it passed 1 billion users, and it’s likely that the next billion will not be in the U.S. Waze has around one-third of its users in the U.S. with the rest worldwide. Facebook’s past acquisition of another Israeli startup, Snaptu, which develops services for feature phones, was another deal that helped the social network tackle the burgeoning population of mobile users in developing markets; Waze, however, would help the company take aim specifically at smartphone users.
While Waze’s R&D is in Israel, its U.S. offices, and its CEO Noam Bardin, are based in (Facebook’s old haunt) Palo Alto, where the firm recently redecorated its front window.
Photo credit: Julie Mossler
H/T: Hillel Fuld
The Gillmor Gang — Robert Scoble, Kevin Marks, Keith Teare, and Steve Gillmor — well, we talked Google Glass. @scobleizer has certainly made the case for the life-altering shower-taking scenarios, but what the Gang got into was what happens next. Do we wait for the actual launch early next year, or is the die already cast with this alpha rollout? One thing for sure: there’s plenty to unravel in this second Glass hour in a row.
What lurks beneath the actual hardware and the choices Google has made in terms of enhanced reality – no, and an atomization of some key aspects of the phone – yes, is the stark choice the search company must make in playing open with Android. @scobleizer reports switching about 30% of his notifications and alerts from iOS to Android, understandable as the Glass interface is the first point of contact for audio chimes and call announcements but not the visual. Glass is in reality more of an audio device with some visual renderings and recorders.
But will the price point Scoble suggests they need to meet — $200 — really be reachable to them unless they can get mass data to subsidize some significant portion of the hardware? More likely, they will open the hardware to iOS much like they just did with Google Now (part of the Search app) and make their stand with turn by turn against Siri. Both Google and Apple will face an increasingly sophisticated customer base that can see just how far voice and facial recognition can really go without mass data from across what used to be called the Web.
In a way, Glass is Google’s response to the iPad Mini, which has rolled up an enormous part of the existing tablet market by cannibalizing its big tablet and adding a large percentage of the 7-inch minis. At several Gartner conferences this week, the number of Minis was reminiscent of what happened when the iPad first broke through on planes. In one fell swoop, Apple captured the lion’s share of the unique gestures made possible by the Mini form factor, which makes it easy to do 90% of both enterprise and social computing in conjunction with the phone. Glass does the same thing for Android, creating a pool of unique gestures that can be expanded upon with advanced services that connect Glasses together.
The common wisdom is that Google doesn’t get social, but Glass is an opportunity for them to get out front with the phone, just as Apple has with the Mini. If Google doesn’t interoperate with the Mini, it will provide an opening for Apple and the nextgen iPhone. More importantly, Glass has to reach the broad market as Search, Gmail, Apps, and Maps have done to feed the data monster it sells off as realtime advertising. Apple’s common wisdom Achilles Heel, not getting the Web and massive Cloud scale, means they will continue to open their platform to Google to maintain market while exploiting their lead in media integration. They lose data they can’t yet handle, but maintain their hold on developer and media revenue and buy much needed time.
@stevegillmor, @scobleizer, @kteare, @kevinmarks
Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor
Live recording chat stream
Update: And the joke is up. The flurry of reports about Baidu’s supposed Google Glass competitor, Baidu Eye, are actually based on an April Fool’s joke. Like all of the best April Fool’s, it had just enough realism to it to be believable. In fact, there is a “kernel of truth” to the story, Baidu spokesperson Kaiser Kuo tells TechCrunch.
“There is an internal project we are working on, a small internal test,” he says. “But we’re not even certain it will ever be brought to market.” He says that Baidu’s concept, like Google Glass, is based on an ocular interface and built with LED. “It’s all about visual search on images and voice command. These have been a part of science fiction since the Fifties but now they’re becoming reality.”
He emphasizes that there are no hardware vendors selected (Qualcomm was among those named as the story “spun out of control”). “I have not been invited to play with it,” he notes. “We may go with it, but we may not, but it certainly fits with what we have been doing.” Like its competitor Google, Baidu has put a lot of investment into looking at what the next generation of search might look like, including efforts in image search and facial recognition, both of which would obviously have a natural home in a piece of head-mounted wearable computing. Being ahead of the game is important for Baidu not only to help it hold on to its 70%+ share of the Chinese search market but also for its wider ambitions to carve out a place for itself elsewhere, including Africa.
Earlier story, rounding up all the scuttlebutt, below.
Baidu, the search giant often referred to as the “Google of China,” is reportedly developing its own version of Google Glass, according to a article in Sina Tech (link via Google Translate). We’ve contacted Baidu for comment.
Testing of a prototype has reportedly already begun. According to the Sina Tech article, Baidu Eye has been in development for “several years” by a team under the direction of Baidu’s chief product designer Sun Yun-feng. The wearable gadget is equipped with tiny LCDs, voice control, image recognition, bone conduction (which allows sound to be conducted to the inner ear through the bones of the skull), and can also function as a standard pair of eyeglasses. Furthermore, developers will reportedly have access to Baidu’s cloud ecosystem to create apps for Baidu Eye. News Web site QQ.com also reported that Baidu has been working with Qualcomm to develop technology that will extend Baidu Eye’s battery life to 12 hours.If Baidu Eye does indeed hit the market, it can offer Baidu a big boost as it seeks to diversify its business away from online search. Though Baidu still holds about a 70 percent share of China’s online search market, it faces competition in that arena from upstarts like Qihoo.
Image via Sina Tech