J-MAGIC SEES MARKET FOR PICTURE-BASED SEARCH

New cell phone services tap image-recognition technologies

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Normally used for security purposes, face and image recognition technologies are making their way into other, more entertaining, fields. One service, kaocheki, lets people send a digital photo of themselves via cell phone to find out which celebrity they most resemble.

Using a face recognition engine developed by Oki Electric Industry Co., kaocheki is free of charge and simple to use. Within a few seconds, a photo sent to male@kaocheki.jp (for men) or female@kaocheki.jp (for women) will result in a list of your top three celebrity matches — complete with percentage.

Taking full advantage of the high-resolution camera phones that are everywhere in Japan, two-year-old mobile content provider J-Magic Inc. launched the service on a trial basis in late April. By early June, more than 22 million users had tried the service.

“I didn’t expect it to become such a big hit,” said Takuya Miyata, the 34-year-old founder and chief executive officer of J-Magic. “The popularity has spread through mixi (Japan’s top social networking site) and blogs. I didn’t do much promotion.”

The Tokyo-based company is the first in Japan to apply face recognition technology in this way.

Following the lead of Google, Yahoo and other search engine operators that have dominated text-based searches, Miyata and advertisers are hoping to seize the potential of the visual recognition technology.

Although Google bought California-based photo recognition firm Neven Vision Inc. last year, it has yet to offer image recognition search services, although development is under way. Yahoo does not offer the services either, but says it is looking at a number of ways to improve its search functions.

Rather than text-based search engines, image and moving picture search engines will be the key to the Internet search industry in the near future, analysts say.

Some companies believe the kaocheki site has strong media potential, noting it has attracted not only tech-savvy teens and people in their early 20s, but also older people who don’t usually take full advantage of cell phone functions.

“We aim to offer content that people enjoy and spend cash on, so that the content market will expand,” said Miyata, who once worked as an engineer developing cell phone cameras. “People (regardless of age or sex) are naturally interested in their face.”

He pointed out the technology may be applied to such businesses as dating services to help customers find their future partners via cell phones.

In addition to the kaocheki service, the company launched in April its eyenowa search engine using image analysis technology developed by Olympus Corp. Instead of a text-based search engine, the service provides information on a product based on a picture sent to search@eyenowa.jp.

For example, suppose you leaf through a magazine and find a recommended book or CD in the magazine. Take a picture of it with your cell phone and send it to the site. You will receive a message that gives you links to sites that have more information about the product or where to order it, such as through Amazon.

J-Magic said about 45,000 products ranging from CDs and books to DVDs can be searched, and it plans to expand the product lineup by adding such items as clothing and jewelry.

“There is a lot of potential” in cell phone marketing, Miyata said. “I want to make the next evolution of search engines based on image, voice and others.”

For one, Miyata said his company’s services can be a useful sales tool in the near future for marketers to sell their goods to targeted audiences.

“By sending a photo of your face to a certain site, you may be classified as a certain celebrity type and receive a message saying ‘you resemble (famous model) Yuri Ebihara,’ so we recommend you choose this type of jewelry and clothing,’ and lead you to a certain shopping site,” he said.

Miyata declined to reveal the company’s financial figures, but he said kaocheki’s popularity helped boost its earnings, which are growing faster than expected thanks to an increasing number of business tieups for kaocheki services. He also hopes to list the company within several years on the market for startups.

The company mainly earns revenue from regular banner and affiliate advertisements, as well as tieups with other companies linked to the kaocheki site.

Compared with the U.S., Japan is generally considered quite advanced in mobile phone usage, with legions of people taking snaps with their high-resolution camera phones and enjoying rich mobile phone content.

But Miyata said the U.S. is catching up as many of the brightest engineers are going into the mobile phone business.

“What I’m worried about in Japan is that Japanese firms tend to focus only on Japanese customers when developing high-technology products, and as a result, it may take a lot of time to market them in other countries,” he said.

American high-tech firms are already offering services targeting various ethnicities in the U.S., including Brazilians and Chinese, which makes it easier for those services to spread to other countries, he said. “Such fast-growing mobile business development is gaining momentum in the U.S. It’s a threat.”

The key is branching out overseas, and Miyata is already getting feelers. Though he declined comment on specifics, he said mobile business firms in Italy, the U.S. and other parts of Asia have already shown interest in possible kaocheki-related business tieups. “It will be another unexpected surprise,” he said.