- Aug 17, 2017
One afternoon in early 2017, at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., an engineer named Tommer Leyvand sat in a conference room with a smartphone standing on the brim of his baseball cap. Rubber bands helped anchor it in place with the camera facing out. The absurd hat-phone, a particularly uncool version of the future, contained a secret tool known only to a small group of employees. What it could do was remarkable. The handful of men in the room were laughing and speaking over one another in excitement, as captured in a video taken that day, until one of them asked for quiet. The room went silent; the demo was underway.
Mr. Leyvand turned toward a man across the table from him. The smartphone’s camera lens — round, black, unblinking — hovered above Mr. Leyvand’s forehead like a Cyclops eye as it took in the face before it. Two seconds later, a robotic female voice declared, “Zach Howard.” “That’s me,” confirmed Mr. Howard, a mechanical engineer. An employee who saw the tech demonstration thought it was supposed to be a joke. But when the phone started correctly calling out names, he found it creepy, like something out of a dystopian movie.
The person-identifying hat-phone would be a godsend for someone with vision problems or face blindness, but it was risky. Facebook’s previous deployment of facial recognition technology, to help people tag friends in photos, had caused an outcry from privacy advocates and led to a class-action lawsuit in Illinois in 2015 that ultimately cost the company $650 million.