Software that lets a camera phone recognise its owner’s face could provide a handy new security measure, according to a Japanese company.

The digital cameras fitted to many modern cellphones already provide a nifty way to capture and share low resolution images with others. But Omron, based in Kyoto, Japan, has developed software that it hopes could turn these built-in cameras into a useful security tool.

“Functionality in mobile phones and other mobile devices is upgrading significantly,” says Masato Kawade at Omron’s Sensing Technology Laboratory. “Mobile devices are carrying increasingly personal information, including address books, schedules and payment information. This technology has been designed to protect this information even when the mobile phone is lost or stolen.”

The OKAO Vision Face Recognition Sensor software was created for existing phones with a digital camera fitted. After taking a picture of their face for reference, a user can configure their handset to lock itself or limit its functionality until another picture is taken.

The software works by measuring key parameters, such as the distance between the eyes, nose and mouth. Omron says the software takes up just 370 Kb of a cellphone’s memory, and takes about one second to perform the check. In testing, it correctly recognised its owner’s face in 99 out of 100 attempts, the company claims.

Mark Nixon, a computer vision expert at the University of Southampton, UK, agrees that current smart phones should be powerful enough to perform the task fairly well. He also sees a strong potential appeal for the application. “Given current concerns over identity theft, if the phone is for secure transactions such as banking, then I think people would be very interested,” he says.

But Alan Robinson, a research scientist at Sheffield Hallam University, UK, says recognising a face from different positions is likely to pose a significant problem.

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