Billionaire Fridman Redefines Face Control for Huge Russian Rave

  • Music festival to feature trendy new facial-recognition app
  • Google-beating FindFace technology finds first commercial use

Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman is throwing a rave party that will give a whole new meaning to the nightclub practice of face control.

His Alfa Future People electronic-music festival, which drew more than 40,000 people last year, will be Russia’s first to use recognition software to identify partygoers and automatically send them snaps of their revelry -- if they agree.

Alfa Future Music Festival
Alfa Future Music Festival
Photographer: Iliya Pitalev/Sputnik

VimpelCom, Fridman’s wireless carrier, is teaming up with a popular new Russian app, NTechLab’s FindFace, for the July 22-24 event, which will test both its commercial viability and the public’s acceptance of surveillance technology. Facial recognition is one of the world’s fastest-growing markets, set to double to $6.2 billion a year by 2020, according to MarketsandMarkets.

“FindFace has become a warning of sorts for many people -- guys, be careful about what you post on social networks," NTechLab co-founder Alexander Kabakov said. “But face recognition is actually doing more good than harm.”

Crime, Controversy

FindFace, which has been downloaded for free more than a million times on both Apple and Android platforms since February, allows users to identify strangers at the click of their smartphone cameras as long as long as they’ve been previously identified in one of more than 250 million photos posted on VKontakte, or VK, Russia’s answer to Facebook.

The app has already made headlines for helping police identify arsonists in St. Petersburg, solve cold cases using stills from old surveillance footage and find missing persons. But it’s also caused worry for privacy advocates who fear the end of public anonymity. An artist in St. Petersburg created a stir by posting snaps of subway riders online who were identified from VK pages.

Kabakov, 29, said the popularity -- and controversy -- over FindFace has led to “hundreds” of inquiries from businesses and governments interested in acquiring its technology, including Chinese casinos and Turkish migration authorities, but Amsterdam-based VimpelCom is its first commercial partner. 

Apple, Facebook 

While U.S. technology giants from Apple Inc. to Facebook Inc. all have sophisticated facial-recognition systems, few can match NTechLab’s accuracy when it comes to searching through more than a few thousand images.

The Russian startup beat programs from Google and China to win the University of Washington’s inaugural MegaFace contest last year in the category that includes that largest number of images. It was 73.3 percent accurate in identifying 530 celebrities from 100,000 photos, compared with 70.5 percent for Google and 65.2 percent for Shenzhen-based SIAT MMLab. 

Kabakov’s partner, Artem Kukharenko, a 26-year-old who’s done research for Purdue University and Samsung Electronics Co., said many competitors use programs that identify certain features, such as distance between eyes, and then search for specific combinations. But NTechLab uses an artificial neural network -- a machine-learning technology that takes a holistic approach, allowing for wider scope and results that are faster and cheaper to achieve.

"We can compare images even across a huge database momentarily and cheaply, without excessive computational power," Kukharenko said.

‘Minority Report’

Kukharenko said NTechLab is focusing on developing a cloud-based platform for small and medium-sized businesses called FindFace.pro, which will be rolled out later this year. The product will allow companies to upload photos and identify or verify customers who are recorded by store cameras. Individual products will be tailored to meet the demands of larger firms.

Eventually, consumers will be tracked by face and ads will be catered to their preferences as they move, for example, through a mall, just like in the Tom Cruise science-fiction movie “Minority Report.” The applications for business, from banks to amusement parks, are practically limitless, Kabakov said.

"In theory, our technology can index 5 billion people -- almost the entire population of the world,” Kabakov said. "We would love to do this."

‘Have Fun’

NTechLab and VimpelCom said privacy won’t be a concern at Future People, which is held at an old Soviet airbase outside Nizhny Novgorod, about 400 kilometers east of Moscow, because participation in the project is voluntary.

Festival attendees, who’ll pay $80 to $250 each -- will be able to send selfies to a chatbot on VK and then FindFace will search the scores of images taken by in-house photographers and forward any in which they appear.

"There’ll be an insignificant margin of error and matching will depend on photo angle and quality,” VimpelCom Russia Vice President Anastasia Orkina said. “Even if there’s an amusing mismatch, there’ll still be a reason to have fun.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE