Questions of racism surround HP webcam

December 22, 2009 7:04:44 PM PST
Silicon Valley computer giant Hewlett Packard is getting a lot of attention from bloggers right now because of a new feature on HP computers that appears to work for whites, but not blacks.

Internet chatter today is all about a video posted on YouTube by a consumer in Houston who demonstrates a glitch in a facial recognition tracking software program on HP computers.

A man identified as Desi shows how the software helps the computer's camera track the user's face as the person moves. His point is that it works for a white colleague, but it doesn't work for him. Desi is African-American. Several blogs have picked up the story and many of those posting comments are wondering if it's racist, as Desi claims, or if it's an inadvertent glitch.

In the video, Desi moves side to side, but the camera never follows his movements. Then a white colleague steps into camera range, and her movements are tracked perfectly as she moves.

HP is officially on holiday this week and next. However, an HP spokesperson did respond to our request for comment. The company would only provide a written statement, which reads in part, "Consistent with other webcams, proper foreground lighting is required for the product to effectively track any person and their movements. As with all our products, we continue to explore refinements which help to optimize their use."

Itzak Ehrlich is a facial recognition software expert in Cupertino. He is the chief technology officer and managing director of Dynamic Ventures, a global custom software developer. Ehrlich spent 16 years at HP doing software development from 1980 to 1996. However, he did not work on the software involved in this case.

Ehrlich agrees with HP that room lighting and lighting on the face may factors here. He says it is likely that HP will need to tweak or adjust the software to recognize various skin colors. He suggested that HP should provide computer users with a knob or other adjustment device to maximize sensitivity to all skin colors.

As for the question of racism, the president of the San Jose branch of the NAACP does not think the software issue is deliberate or discriminatory. The Rev. Jethroe Moore II says HP has a long history of being culturally sensitive and a supporter of minority organizations. "They are concerned with the color of their customers' money," Rev. Moore said this afternoon, not their skin color.

Efforts to reach Desi, who appeared in the YouTube video, were unsuccessful. His listed telephone number in Houston has been disconnected.

In the YouTube video Desi is kicking himself for buying a computer with a feature he can't seem to use. He says "And the worst part is, I bought one for Christmas."


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