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

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YouTube screengrab

(Read caption) 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.

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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.


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