A facial recognition system is a computer application for automatically identifying or verifying a person from a digital image or a video frame from a video source. One of the ways to do this is by comparing selected facial features from the image and a facial database. It is typically used in security systems and can be compared to other biometrics such as fingerprint or eye iris recognition systems.



Some facial recognition algorithms identify faces by extracting landmarks, or features, from an image of the subject's face. For example, an algorithm may analyze the relative position, size, and/or shape of the eyes, nose, cheekbones, and jaw. These features are then used to search for other images with matching features. Other algorithms normalize a gallery of face images and then compress the face data, only saving the data in the image that is useful for face detection. A probe image is then compared with the face data. One of the earliest, successful systems is based on template matching techniques applied to a set of salient facial features, providing a sort of compressed face representation.

Recognition algorithms can be divided into two main approaches, geometric, which looks at distinguishing features or photometric, which is a statistical approach that distill an image into values and comparing the values with templates to eliminate variances.

Popular recognition algorithms include Principal Component Analysis which Eigenface, Linear Discriminate Analysis, Elastic Bunch Graph Matching fisherface, the Hidden Markov model, and the neuronal motivated dynamic link matching.


A newly emerging trend, claimed to achieve previously unseen accuracies, is three-dimensional face recognition. This technique uses 3-D sensors to capture information about the shape of a face. This information is then used to identify distinctive features on the surface of a face, such as the contour of the eye sockets, nose, and chin.

One advantage of 3-D facial recognition is that it is not affected by changes in lighting like other techniques. It can also identify a face from a range of viewing angles, including a profile view.

Even a perfect 3D matching technique could be sensitive to expressions. For that goal a group at the Technion applied tools from metric geometry to treat expressions as Isometries.

Skin texture analysis

Another emerging trend uses the visual details of the skin, as captured in standard digital or scanned images. This technique, called skin texture analysis, turns the unique lines, patterns, and spots apparent in a person’s skin into a mathematical space. Tests have shown that with the addition of skin texture analysis, performance in recognizing faces can increase 20 to 25 percent.


- Google's Picasa digital image organizer has a built in face recognition system starting from version 3.5 onwards. It can associate faces with persons, so that queries can be run on pictures to return all pictures with a specific group of people together. Picasaweb.com has also been providing a similar feature to its users.

- Apple iPhoto, photo organizer distributed with iLife suite of applications includes a system using which people can tag recognized people on photos. Then they can be searched using Spotlight.

- Sony's Picture Motion Browser (PMB) analyses photo, associates photos with identical faces so that they can be tagged accordingly, and differentiates between photos with one person, many persons and nobody.

Comparative study

Among the different biometric techniques, facial recognition may not be the most reliable and efficient. However, one key advantage is that it does not require aid (or consent) from the test subject. Properly designed systems installed in airports, multiplexes, and other public places can identify individuals among the crowd. Other biometrics like fingerprints, iris scans, and speech recognition cannot perform this kind of mass identification. However, questions have been raised on the effectiveness of facial recognition software in cases of railway and airport security.



Face recognition is not perfect and struggles to perform under certain conditions. Ralph Gross, a researcher at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute, describes one obstacle related to the viewing angle of the face: "Face recognition has been getting pretty good at full frontal faces and 20 degrees off, but as soon as you go towards profile, there've been problems."

Other conditions where face recognition does not work well include poor lighting, sunglasses, long hair, or other objects partially covering the subject’s face, and low resolution images.

Another serious disadvantage is that many systems are less effective if facial expressions vary. Even a big smile can render in the system less effective. For instance: Canada now allows only neutral facial expressions in passport photos.


Critics of the technology complain that the London Borough of Newham scheme has, as of 2004, never recognized a single criminal, despite several criminals in the system's database living in the Borough and the system having been running for several years. "Not once, as far as the police know, has Newham's automatic facial recognition system spotted a live target." This information seems to conflict with claims that the system was credited with a 34% reduction in crime - which better explains why the system was then rolled out to Birmingham also.

An experiment by the local police department in Tampa, Florida, had similarly disappointing results.

"Camera technology designed to spot potential terrorists by their facial characteristics at airports failed its first major test at Boston's Logan Airport

Safehouse International Limited, an Australian company, patented a software including iMotion and iCount systems. The company claimed this systems were able to track moving people and calculate the number of people in a crowd. After 9/11, the software was considered “commercially attractive” by the US administration. It was later revealed by David Mapley, a US shareholder of Safehouse International Limited) that the software actually never worked.

Privacy concerns

Many citizens are concerned that their privacy will be invaded. Some fear that it could lead to a “total surveillance society,” with the government and other authorities having the ability to know where you are, and what you are doing, at all times. This is not to be an underestimated concept as history has shown that states have typically abused such access before.

Recent Improvements

In 2006, the performance of the latest face recognition algorithms were evaluated in the Face Recognition Grand Challenge (FRGC). High-resolution face images, 3-D face scans, and iris images were used in the tests. The results indicated that the new algorithms are 10 times more accurate than the face recognition algorithms of 2002 and 100 times more accurate than those of 1995. Some of the algorithms were able to outperform human participants in recognizing faces and could uniquely identify identical twins.

Low-resolution images of faces can be enhanced using face hallucination. Further improvements in high resolution, megapixel cameras in the last few years have helped to resolve the issue of insufficient resolution.

Early development

Pioneers of Automated Facial Recognition include: Woody Bledsoe, Helen Chan Wolf, and Charles Bisson. During 1964 and 1965, Bledsoe, along with Helen Chan and Charles Bisson, worked on using the computer to recognize human faces (Bledsoe 1966a, 1966b; Bledsoe and Chan 1965). He was proud of this work, but because the funding was provided by an unnamed intelligence agency that did not allow much publicity, little of the work was published. Given a large database of images (in effect, a book of mug shots) and a photograph, the problem was to select from the database a small set of records such that one of the image records matched the photograph. The success of the method could be measured in terms of the ratio of the answer list to the number of records in the database. Bledsoe (1966a) described the following difficulties:

"This recognition problem is made difficult by the great variability in head rotation and tilt, lighting intensity and angle, facial expression, aging, etc. Some other attempts at facial recognition by machine have allowed for little or no variability in these quantities. Yet the method of correlation (or pattern matching) of unprocessed optical data, which is often used by some researchers, is certain to fail in cases where the variability is great. In particular, the correlation is very low between two pictures of the same person with two different head rotations." - Woody Bledsoe, 1966

This project was labeled man-machine because the human extracted the coordinates of a set of features from the photographs, which were then used by the computer for recognition. Using a graphics tablet (GRAFACON or RAND TABLET), the operator would extract the coordinates of features such as the center of pupils, the inside corner of eyes, the outside corner of eyes, point of widows peak, and so on. From these coordinates, a list of 20 distances, such as width of mouth and width of eyes, pupil to pupil, were computed. These operators could process about 40 pictures an hour. When building the database, the name of the person in the photograph was associated with the list of computed distances and stored in the computer. In the recognition phase, the set of distances was compared with the corresponding distance for each photograph, yielding a distance between the photograph and the database record. The closest records are returned.

This brief description is an oversimplification that fails in general because it is unlikely that any two pictures would match in head rotation, lean, tilt, and scale (distance from the camera). Thus, each set of distances is normalized to represent the face in a frontal orientation. To accomplish this normalization, the program first tries to determine the tilt, the lean, and the rotation. Then, using these angles, the computer undoes the effect of these transformations on the computed distances. To compute these angles, the computer must know the three-dimensional geometry of the head. Because the actual heads were unavailable, Bledsoe (1964) used a standard head derived from measurements on seven heads.

After Bledsoe left PRI in 1966, this work was continued at the Stanford Research Institute, primarily by Peter Hart. In experiments performed on a database of over 2000 photographs, the computer consistently outperformed humans when presented with the same recognition tasks (Bledsoe 1968). Peter Hart (1996) enthusiastically recalled the project with the exclamation, "It really worked!"

By about 1997, the system developed by Christoph von der Malsburg and graduate students of the University of Bochum in Germany and the University of Southern California in the United States outperformed most systems with those of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Maryland rated next. The Bochum system was developed through funding by the United States Army Research Laboratory. The software was sold as ZN-Face and used by customers such as Deutsche Bank and operators of airports and other busy locations. The software was "robust enough to make identifications from less-than-perfect face views. It can also often see through such impediments to identification as mustaches, beards, changed hair styles and glasses, even sunglasses".

In about January 2007, image searches were "based on the text surrounding a photo," for example, if text nearby mentions the image content. Polar Rose technology can guess from a photograph, in about 1.5 seconds, what any individual may look like in three dimensions, and thought they "will ask users to input the names of people they recognize in photos online" to help build a database