Swedish Company Looks to Unify Photos on the Web

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A Swedish startup is edging closer to a Web-based service that provides a one-stop Web site where people can see their friends' photos, regardless of whether those friends use different photo-sharing sites or social networks.

The company, Polar Rose, started out in 2004 specializing in facial-recognition technology. Polar Rose created a browser plug-in that popped up a small symbol when a browser opened a Web page containing a photo of a face. When a user clicked on the symbol, the Polar Rose service looked for more photos of the same person in its database drawn from photos publicly posted on the Internet.

It was powerful technology, and it didn't sit well with people, even those who knew the photos they posted were public, said Nikolaj Nyholm, Polar Rose's CEO.

"Despite these photos being public and sharing it on Flickr and saying 'I'm OK with people viewing this,' people weren't comfortable being named," Nyholm said. "I think we underestimated that. People feel there is some privacy by obscurity, but the fact is we were digging up this information and making it searchable."

But earlier this year, Polar Rose changed its tack due to those concerns and began dealing only with "private" photos -- those on photo-sharing sites such as Flickr and Facebook where people must authenticate themselves and have more granular control over who can view the photos.

Polar Rose is aiming to become a one-stop Web site where users can see, for example, all of the photos from a recent wedding, even if they're posted on different photo-sharing or social-networking sites.

The company's latest integration is with Facebook. Users of that site can now easily create an account on Polar Rose using their Facebook authentication credentials due to Polar Rose's use of Facebook's Connect feature.

Polar Rose then imports a person's Facebook photos while inheriting the same privacy settings that have been indicated on Facebook. Polar Rose's facial-recognition algorithm studies the photos.

When new photos are posted to Facebook, Polar Rose imports them and suggests tags for the people in those photos based on the other ones. Once approved, those tags are sent back to Facebook.

The features is intended to eliminate the burden when uploading lots of photos. Nyholm said new Polar Rose users have an average of around 1,700 photos on Facebook. Users who are tagged get the normal Facebook notification and can untag themselves. For Flickr, users get an e-mail notification, Nyholm said.

Next year, Polar Rose plans to be able to mine the metadata in those photos combined with looking at aspects such as a photo's background. Nyholm said Polar Rose is striving for a platform that can collate photos from multiple repositories, group them together based on metadata and then present them in a clean manner to friends who are connected.

"For us, it's about managing and sharing photos in an intelligent way across the cloud and breaking down the wall between the different silos," Nyholm said.

As far as a business plan, Polar Rose has developed a white-label service that would bring the facial-recognition technology to mobile phones. Due to hardware advancements as well as a refined facial-recognition algorithm, Polar Rose has a platform for mobiles that it can license to operators and manufacturers.

Nyholm said the company has a deal with one mobile operator and one with a manufacturer, which will be announced at next year's Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona next February.

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