Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

A most intriguing buy: Google acquires biometrics firm Neven Vision

Posted by Richard Koman - August 16, 2006

By Richard Koman for

Here's one for the conspiracy theorists. Yesterday Google announced the purchase of Neven Vision, which specialized in photo recognition software which does business both with the cellphone industry (organize your camphone pics) and the federal government (recognize who's going through security with tubes of gel in each hand and white powder on his shoes). So does buy give Google a leg up in the online digital photo service biz? (Yes.) Or a foot in the door into the lucrative federal government contracting biz (possibly).

As far as online photos go, Neven's tech will be integrated into Picasa. Adrian Graham, Picasa product manager, says this on the Google blog: "Unless you take the time to label and organize all your pictures (and I'll freely admit that I don't), chances are it can be pretty hard to find that photo you just know is hidden somewhere deep inside your computer. ... Neven Vision comes to Google with deep technology and expertise around automatically extracting information from a photo. It could be as simple as detecting whether or not a photo contains a person, or, one day, as complex as recognizing people, places, and objects. This technology just may make it a lot easier for you to organize and find the photos you care about."

Uh huh. Picasa. The thing, is, Neven is a powerhouse in the mobile market with 15 patents. Their technology works without communication to a central server. In March they cut a deal with NTT DoCoMo to run a security application on one DoCoMo-running phone. Scott Schaefer reported at the time on how it works:

When the user initiates an action, the automated authentication process completes correctly and then executes the chosen application, all without any additional action by the user, such as having to manually enter a password. Designed as replacement of access control by password or PIN number, the technology supports i-mode FeliCa, PIM data protection, and device lock function.

In addition, Neven's iScout is a major mobile marketing application. Think that's a business with some application to Google? "Google could easily use this software to improve local search and advertising from cell phones, for example," Schaefer notes.

Schaefer looks for Yahoo to have to respond in kind, possibly by acquiring ActiveSymbols, a division of Logicalis. ActiveSymbols combines recognition software with a proprietary server that recognizes a camphone-snapped image, searches the web for related information and returns results to the phone.

The blogosphere seems ready to assume that Neven can check a photo of any person against the database of all human users and figure out who they are. From there, it's a quick tour through users' search history and email, MySpace friends lists, and real-world locations.

The first part of that is far-fetched I think. Face recognition is surely at the biometrics level, not being able to identify individuals. But the trick is to get users to identify faces to the system. Once instructed, the system should be able to use biometrics to get that person's ID right in the future. (GigaOm reports that the LAPD uses Neven to do facial IDs of gang members; that sounds like it's getting close, but the LAPD's photobase of gang members is a much smaller population than Google users.) Once that's done, the rest lines up quite nicely.

Google now has relationships with DoCoMo and other major mobile players. With Neven, it has pic-to-search capabilities and killer mobile security features, which can open the door to mobile e-commerce. Google has an ad relationship with News Corp and MySpace. If there were a way to connect MySpace networks into phone applications, say - this is where in physical space your friends are right now, where do you want to meet for lunch? - that sounds interesting.

How to get a job

Guy Kawasaki posted Monday about "How to get a job in Silicon Valley but didn't know who to ask." By yesterday, even the legal bloggers were shaking in recognition of his awful truths. The piece is notable not just for his solid job hunting advice but for his antropology of homo siliconis.

The job hunting advice is straight-forward - be enthusiastic, keep your res to one page, show up early - but it's these other little gems that nail the Valley.

Passion for what a company makes or does is the most important factor in getting a job in Silicon Valley. Companies here are built on passion—indeed, perhaps more passion than reality. Hence, they hire passionate people who are already in the Reality Distortion Field. The question is, How do you show your passion?
Passion for what a company makes or does is the most important factor in getting a job in Silicon Valley. Companies here are built on passion—indeed, perhaps more passion than reality. Hence, they hire passionate people who are already in the Reality Distortion Field. The question is, How do you show your passion?

And then ... Guy delivers this little table of the people you're likely to meet around the table at the gang interview. This is so spot on, all you can do is smile and say, wow. Like the marketing guy:

Mr. CPG Brought in by the wunderkinds to fix marketing even though they think the company's gizmo is so cool that it doesn't need marketing. Can't do a demo of the product but believes that everything is a consumer packaged good. MBA. Worked for five years for Playtex marketing tampons. Leases a Cadillac. What do you think of Kotler's Four Ps of marketing? They are still important, but the Internet and online communities have made life much more complex for marketers. I'm glad you're running that function here because I can learn a lot from you.

And of course, Ms. CEO:

Ms. CEO Proof that ice water can run in people's veins. Tough, talented. Shattered the glass ceiling into a thousand pieces. Sports a trophy husband. Makes the Merrill Streep character in The Devil Wears Prada look like a girl scout. Friends with Carly Fiorina. Did you see that article in Forbes about me? "Seen it?" Are you kidding? I have a copy right here. I was going to ask you to autograph it.

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