For people with face blindness (also known as prosopagnosia), social events can feel like a medieval gauntlet.
"While many people tend to shy away from events that are filled with strangers, the events that prosopagnosics avoid most frequently are those filled with people that they’re expected to know and/or people with whom they should at least be familiar," neuroscientist Dr Barry Sandrew told TechRadar.
"To someone with face blindness, people they’ve known for decades may be no more recognizable than a stranger, or they may appear like casual acquaintances that are difficult or impossible to place. It’s the act of bumping into those individuals at events, at work or even at a mall that cause the greatest stress for people with face blindness."
To help overcome this debilitating problem, Dr Sandrew is developing an app called SocialRecall, which will use augmented reality and facial recognition technology to identify people and transform the lives of prosopagnosics.
Why augmented reality?
The move into mixed reality was a natural one for Dr Sandrew, who has a long history working in visual design. He founded visual effects studio Legend3D in 2001, and added a dedicated virtual reality division to the company in 2013.
For the last three years he has also organized the mixed reality business summit and expo Magnify World, and the idea for SocialRecall struck while co-ordinating the 2018 event in Australia.
"One of the potential speakers on the agenda was Professor Brian Lovell of the University of Queensland and the Queensland Brain Institute," Dr Sandrew said. "He had invented some facial recognition software that appeared to be superior to anything else I’ve seen, and most significantly, was fully adaptable to mobile phone devices."
In a pre-conference interview, Dr Sandrew explained that he'd always wanted to create an app that used facial recognition to help people with face blindness.
"Dr Lovell had never heard of face blindness, let alone the term prosopagnosia," he said. "He found it fascinating and proceeded to research the condition on his own. He learned that as many as 2.5% of the population suffers from a clinical form of the condition – that’s approximately 8.5 million people in the US alone."
Dr Lovell also learned that face recognition is a spectrum. On one side are super-recognizers, who never forget a face no matter how casual or insignificant the meeting, and on the other are those for whom ordinary social situations can be a truly traumatic experience.
He agreed to work with Dr Sandrew to create a consumer app to help people with various degrees of face blindness, but their ambitions didn't stop there. They sought to produce can app for events such as conferences, weddings, parties or any gathering of people with common interests or for a common cause.
"As someone with prosopagnosia I saw a facial recognition event app tied to LinkedIn or Facebook as an amazing way to break down those awkward social mores and traditional introduction protocols," said Dr Sandrew.
"With this app, you can scan a room and instantly know who everyone and anyone is. With this technology, one would be able to go up to strangers and greet them by their first name and begin a networking process that might otherwise never happen."
Access for all
SocialRecall will initially use mobile phones, but the ultimate goal is for the app to work covertly with smart glasses.
"Fortunately, the vast majority of adults in the US and most places around the world have at least one smart phone in their possession so the Social Recall app is available to just about everyone without any barrier to its use," said Dr Sandrew.
However, creating an accessible app isn't a simple process. The development team only had experience working with enterprise clients in the military, transportation and security, and had no frame of reference for consumer software.
"I had to help them understand the difference between a utility application and an application that will resonate with the average consumer. The term app friction was a new one to the team. The concept refers to the ease with which a person uses an app. If the app becomes too complicated, or if there are too many pages or hoops to jump through, the consumer will simply turn off the app and never use it. Thus, the app has to be intuitive and effortless to use.
"In addition, I wanted the app to become the ultimate contact utility for calls and emails as well as data query. This was beyond the original scope of the initial project, but my desire for the app was to build as compelling of a value proposition within the app as possible."
Breaking down barriers
Drs Sandrew and Lovell showcased the app last summer at the Magnify World summit, where roughly 1,000 people downloaded it and submitted their face data to the Magnify World database.
"The app was a major hit and delivered all of the fun and engagement that it was designed to deliver," said Dr Sandrew. "While admittedly a curiosity, the app definitely broke down barriers with complete strangers coming up to one another and appearing to know each other on a first name basis.
"It was remarkable to see, as the technology was breaking down traditional social protocols and mores right in front of our eyes, bringing me back the opening lyrics of the 80s sitcom Cheers, which took place in a bar in Boston: 'You wanna be where everybody knows your name?'"