HP's 'racist' webcam: harbinger of motion-tracking troubles?

A YouTube video appears to show the company's built-in face-tracking software failing to work on people with dark skin.

YouTube screengrab
A black man tests out an HP webcam in a video posted to YouTube, only to discover it won't track his face because of the color of his skin.

Talk about a PR nightmare.

Touted as able to track faces, the webcam on one of Hewlett-Packard's MediaSmart computers runs into trouble when a black face enters its field of vision. Instead of tracking a subject as they move around the room, it locks into its default position. Enter a white person, and the camera jumps to life, panning, zooming, and focusing on her face. It was all captured on video and uploaded to YouTube.

The difference is clear as day, and no-doubt embarrassing to the company. Panic time at HP?

Not really. Despite the video being viewed over 300,000 times and reposted to countless sites, HP kept its cool. In a blog post addressing the video (and providing a link to it) HP's Tony Welch thanked Desi and Wanda, the video's creators, and promised that he and the team at HP were looking into why the camera was behaving the way it was. "The technology we use is built on standard algorithms that measure the difference in intensity of contrast between the eyes and the upper cheek and nose," he said. "We believe that the camera might have difficulty 'seeing' contrast in conditions where there is insufficient foreground lighting," he added, and suggested users visit a facial tracking help page.

While 'Desi's" experience is unfortunate, and face tracking feels like a gimmick now, the whole episode carries a lesson for programmers as nontraditional interfaces come into the mainstream.

New paradigm, new challenges

The Nintendo Wii, with its innovative motion remote, introduced many to a new way of controlling an onscreen experience. The iPhone and iPod Touch helped bring the "multi-touch" interface of pinches and flicks into the tech vernacular. Both take some getting used to, (just as the keyboard did when users first sat down to type "The quick, brown fox jumps over the lazy dog") but most users are able to pick them up fairly quickly, even without prior gaming or technological experience. More importantly, people could manipulate the new tools regardless of how they looked.

Now, a new range of game controllers and input devices completely does away with buttons, remotes, and control sticks. Microsoft's "Natal," tentatively slated for release in late 2010, uses just a series of cameras and sensors to capture a user's movements and translate them into onscreen actions. Natal could be a firecracker or a flop, but in light of HP's very public webcam episode, its designers should make sure that Natal works with people of all skin colors, wearing whatever they like.


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