Two dogs in a pile of leaves Two dogs in a pile of leaves What kind of dogs are these? A new app can not only ID them, but can also find you similar dogs available to adopt in your neck of the woods. (Photo: Rita Kochmarjova /Shutterstock)

Scientists use facial recognition technology to find your next pet

How a bunch of ones and zeros can help you discover your new best friend.

Scores of scientists and Ph.D's are in a laboratory in Israel working on the next great revolution in Internet search technology. Using advanced algorithms, they have reached a breakthrough called visual search. And they have chosen to let it go to the dogs. Literally.

Here's how it works: See that cute dog over there? Snap a picture of her, upload it to PetMatch, and the app will find you similar-looking dogs that are adoptable in your area.

In this age of infinite data, search has become an indispensable tool that allows the public access to this unlimited stream of knowledge and information. Google alone processes nearly 6 billion searches every single day. But it's not always easy to search for something based on an image. What if you can't think of the words to type into the search engine? Would merely searching for "cute and cuddly small dogs" yield anything valuable?

That's where PetMatch comes in. "The beauty of visual search is the ability to do all that minus any words. The photo becomes the words," Geoffrey Shenk, a vice president at PetMatch, told From the Grapevine.

Superfish, the company behind the app, has offices in both Palo Alto, Calif., and Tel Aviv, with the majority of the team in the company's Israel office. Employees' pets roam throughout both offices. The company has been ranked No. 4 on the Inc. 500 list of America’s Fastest Growing Private Companies.

Cute dogLike what you see? PetMatch can help you find a similar dog. (Photo: Patryk Kosmider/Shutterstock)

Other companies have various ways to search by images. For example, consumers can take a picture of a book cover at the mall, and Amazon can pull up that item from their database. But there are limits to how perfect the image needs to be for this to work. "We are able to take that book cover and allow the user to take a photo of it in the way they naturally would. Not at this staged 90-degree level," Shenk said. "We know that if we move that book around, it's still the same book."

Using intelligent vectoring, Superfish is moving beyond the usual 2-D imaging. The company's algorithm looks at a photo and slices it visually – by geometry, color and so forth. In total, their computer servers slice the photo 200 different ways in just milliseconds. It doesn't matter what's in the picture: It can be a tree, a shoe or a Shih Tzu-poodle mix with thousands of strands of hair.

However, an app that identifies your next Fido or Friskers faces a unique market challenge: Unlike buying cereal or a car, adopting pets is not a high-frequency transaction. Indeed, the average person only adopts a few pets in their entire lifetime. "There are no serial pet adopters out there," Shenk said.

But Superfish sees multiple purposes for PetMatch. People want to discover other pets that look like their pet. Or to tell a friend or relative who is in the market for a new dog. Or to take pictures of other pets at the park to figure out what breed they are. Or to find a new pet that looks similar to a beloved pet that died. The company also hopes the service allows users to find and discover pets they wouldn't have thought about adopting before.

Superfish works with PetFinder to leverage the adoption behemoth's immense database. "We crawl it once every morning," Shenk said.

The company sees pet identification as just the first of many practical uses of their visual search technology. "We have a laundry list of things we're working on," Shenk said. The company is toying with ways to snap a picture of any plant – from practically any angle – and being able to ID it. Or take a picture of the beach, and the algorithm can find you hotel rooms that have that view. Or to take a picture of a meal and instantly be able to find the calorie count and recipes for making that dish.

"At some point in time, eventually the camera on your phone becomes your search engine. That's the long-term plan we're going for here," he said, adding: "The ability to recognize a picture in and of itself is a magic trick that has a lot of big implications in other businesses."


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Scientists use facial recognition technology to find your next pet
How a bunch of ones and zeros can help you find your new best friend.