Google wants to help you put a name to that face.
With a face recognition feature set to launch at noon PDT Tuesday, Google's Picasa Web Albums will help users label their photos with the names of subjects. That and other changes to the photo-sharing site are joined by a new beta version of the accompanying Picasa 3.0 photo-editing software.
The "name tag" feature presents users with collections of photos with what it judges to be the same person, then lets them click a button to affix a name. Once photographic subjects are named, users can browse an album of that individual on the fly.
"Once you've started naming people, we'll start suggesting names for you based on similarity," said Mike Horowitz, Google's Picasa product manager. "The process of naming people is really addictive and tremendously fun."
Having tried the new service on dozens of photos, I wouldn't go that far. But it is a major advance in what I believe is a very important area, photo metadata.
Tagging is a powerful way to sort digital photographs. Photo albums are useful, but with rich tagging, people also can slice and dice their photo collection to show particular people, activities, or locations. Even with face recognition technology or other computer processing, the textual tags in photos are a far more reliable way for computers to understand image content.
And tags become even more powerful as photos are assembled into publicly accessible collections such as those at Yahoo's Flickr, Picasa, or Fox Interactive's Photobucket.
Eat your vegetables, exercise regularly, tag your photos
The problem with tagging is that it's a chore, so most people don't bother. But Picasa's name tag feature automates the process enough--and provides enough reason to use it--that I believe many users will take the tagging plunge.
It took me less than 15 minutes to tag close to 200 faces in a set of more than 100 photos, and that included some start-up time such as figuring out how the system worked, establishing names for various common subjects, and correcting a few errors. The most impressive moments are when Picasa presents a large array of photos with the same face, and you can label them all with a single click.
I speak here from experience. I do tag my own photos--for example the 700 I took on a weeklong backpacking trip earlier this month--and something like Google's facial recognition assisting would have dramatically sped the process. It wouldn't help with other tags such as "swimming," "waterfall," or "Sierra tiger lily," but let's face it--people are the central feature in most people's photos.
Overall, Google's Picasa moves show that despite a long period of near-dormancy, Google still evidently is committed to the photography site and software.
However, Picasa overall still feels like a staid place to store photos, share them with friends, and maybe order prints. It doesn't match the vibrant community of Yahoo's Flickr. And though Flickr also has been slow to change, Yahoo has at least been nudging it in the right direction with additions such as online editing.
Face recognition blemishes
Picasa's name tags are helpful but imperfect. The feature failed to find faces in several photos where I thought the faces were reasonably obvious. It also thought my bicycle wheel's spokes and wife's ear were faces. One excusable error: it thought a mask in a mural was a face, though for some reason it didn't bother with a couple of real humans in the same mural.
"Our face-matching technology works best when a person is looking at the camera," Horowitz said. "There are a variety of factors that may limit our success in matching faces, including profile views and challenging lighting conditions like shadows."
The most annoying error was that during the initial period when I was adding names to the system, it somehow came up with three separate versions of me and two versions of my son, despite the fact that I entered the same name and e-mail address. I fixed it by telling Picasa my alter egos were erroneously labeled, at which point they re-entered the labeling pool and I assigned them to the remaining identity. Too bad I didn't notice the "merge" option until later.
Knowing the privacy implications of face recognition, Google is proceeding somewhat cautiously. Picasa users must specifically enable the name tag feature, and default name tags aren't shared publicly. Picasa users may only tag photos in their own account.
With the "name tag" feature, which users must specifically enable, Picasa presents groups of images sharing the same face. Users can label them with a person's name. Eventually users can click a tag to find shots of a particular subject in their photo collections,
There are other changes coming to Picasa Web Albums (though a change to Google Photos isn't one of them, at least right now). One is an "explore" view that lets people browse the total collection of public Picasa photos. It lets people browse by popular tags, location, and peer at recent uploads. Another is the ability to e-mail photos to the service.
Picasa 3 beta
Google also plans to release a beta version of the Picasa 3 image-editing. It works on Windows, though a Google Labs version has been transmogrified to work on Linux via the Wine software layer. Horowitz wouldn't confirm whether a Mac OS X version is anything more than an idea: "Macs are important to us," he said. "We're always looking for new ways making sure our users are happy, so it's something we're looking at."
The new Picasa software brings several changes:
A movie maker mode lets people combine photos with music to export movie versions of galleries to watch on a PC or upload to YouTube.
A new retouch brush lets people edit out skin blemishes and other trouble spots. And the tool can automatically fix red-eye problems caused by flash photography.
A new collage mode lets users compile many photos into one composite image. This time, users get precise control over image placement for example by moving, rotating, and resizing photos, and the software can produce a high-resolution composite for poster-size prints.
A photo viewer for quick slideshows, an option that during installation politely asks to own the file associations for JPEG, TIFF, raw images from higher-end cameras, and some other formats. The slideshow software can view PNG files, which is handy, but the editing software still can't, which is a significant limitation for me.
Online synchronization. If photos have been uploaded from Picasa to the Web site, they can be edited later and the changes, including tags, are synchronized to the Web site. This is very handy since you might want to get images up quickly to share with friends then edit them later. Unfortunately, changes on the Web site aren't mirrored back to the PC, so all those name tags will stay put in the cloud for now.