Taking Technology at Face Value

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Joz Wang shows a message displayed by her Nikon Coolpix S630 digital camera which has difficulty recognizing smiles on Asian faces. (Photo courtesy jozjozjoz.com)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Staff Writer

The Nikon Coolpix S630 digital camera came with an impressive new feature, the ability to detect if the subject had closed his or her eyes when the shutter snapped. The technology became far better known for its inaccuracy than its futuristic capabilities, however, drawing everything from giggles to condemnation.

Joz Wang, an internet technology consultant who lives in Larchmont Village, discovered the malfunction when she and her brother presented their mom with the new Nikon as a Mother’s Day gift last year.

“It was really funny, because every time we took a picture of each other, we got this error message,” said Wang, 33. With every shot of herself or her family–all of Taiwanese heritage–the camera flashed the question, “Did someone blink?”

The messages continued with each exposure until her brother open his eyes as wide as he could, in a cartoony, bug-eyed gaze.

Wang posted the story and a photo on her blog with the title, “Racist Camera! No, I did not blink… I’m just Asian!” The post made its way across the Web, inciting comments that ranged from glee and disbelief to charges of overt racism on the part of Nikon. One comment read “I’ll never buy anything from those racists,” while another noted, “You would think that Nikon, being a Japanese company, would have designed this with Asian eyes in mind.”

“I don’t know how anyone can call it ‘racist.’ I’m not saying it’s racist on the part of Nikon. To us, it’s all been a big joke,” said Wang, who described herself as a devoted Nikon user.

After hearing of Wang’s story, a television news team in San Francisco tested the camera on the street, where the device misread four of six Asian faces. Friends and family members discovered the same problem with their Nikons and sent messages to Wang, saying, “We got the racist camera, too!”

The story calmed for a few months, until an African American in Texas reported problems with the webcam in his HP laptop computer. The face-recognition had no problem tracking the movements of his white coworker, but didn’t register his face at all. HP has since reiterated its commitment to diversity and said it is working to improve the system.

A Time magazine story last month explained that many consumer cameras are guilty of the unintentional bias toward Caucasian faces, a glitch in a technology that is still relatively in its infancy.

“It’s really about the limitations of technology,” Wang explained. “Each new generation of cameras has some new features and functions, and it takes time to get it right. If they don’t get it right a few generations from now, that’s a problem.”

She compared the Nikon’s problem to the bugs in the software for transcribing deployed by some phone services, which will send customers emails with the text of voice messages they have received. The systems generally work well, but if the speaker has an accent, for example, it can make quite a few errors.

On a recent trip to Taipei, Wang noticed that the same Nikon model she purchased had just been released in that country, and wondered if users had encountered the same problem.

“My question is, if they sell this camera in Asia, does the version there compensate for Asian eyes? Here, Asians are a small percentage of the population, but there, it’s everybody.”

Wang said that she and her brother leave on the blink-detection function for the comedic value of its shortcomings, but understands how others might be put off by the malfunctions. She described how two weeks after Mother’s Day, her family attended a birthday party in Las Vegas, where the camera confounded several relatives who were unaware of its quirks.

“My family thinks it’s funny, but someone who’s unfamiliar with it might be annoyed by that message always coming up,” she said.

Joz Wang on the Web: www.jozjozjoz.com

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