More Than Meets the Eye: UNCW Professor’s Work Making Strides in Next Phase of Biometrics

Monday, August 25, 2014

UNCW professor Karl Ricanek hasn't discovered the fountain of youth, but his work is making breakthroughs in the field of aging.

In addition to being a faculty member in the computer science department and director of the UNCW Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies in Identity Sciences (I2SIS), Ricanek recently launched, a web application that allows users to upload their picture to see the "age" of their face and provides an estimate of their lifespan using advanced actuarial science techniques. Since its launch on July 2, has received 1.3 million hits from more than 210 different countries.

I2SIS, the only institute at UNCW, was formerly known as The Face Aging Group and grew out of a need for research on biometrics, specifically on the face.

In 2003, Ricanek began working with fellow UNCW faculty members Midori Albert and Eric Patterson to develop a better facial recognition system.

"It was difficult,” said Ricanek. “It took a while to a make a real impact, to develop real tools to model the human face and face aging process, the tools needed to solve the most difficult problem in face recognition “aging.” Ricanek will claim success when automatic face recognition technology can match anyone over their lifespan.

He credits Albert, a forensic anthropologist, with teaching him about the face and learning “to break it up for analysis.” Patterson, associate professor of computer science, helped him “grow solutions through advanced modeling techniques.” The group, with the help of students—more than 80 since 2004, is making true strides in the intelligence community and in the field of identity science, which will lead to the next phase of biometrics. 

Ricanek’s interest in facial recognition started while earning his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from North Carolina A&T State University when his dissertation advisor asked, “How do we see?”

“We are hard-wired for face recognition,” said Ricanek. “My work is to understand how humans perform face recognition and build machines that outperform humans by refining the biological approach.”

Ricanek finds himself "staring at a person's face, not from a point of attraction, but from a point of science. It's fascinating that the basic facial structure (two eyes, one nose and one mouth) can be configured to form billions of unique face variations. Even identical (monozygotic) twins have unique faces.” Ricanek’s machines can distinguish them even if some humans can’t.

Ricanek’s work with face aging and facial recognition is having effects on industries from life insurance to cosmetic surgery to national security. He has developed multiple facial recognition programs for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency and the Army Research Lab among others.

A faculty member at UNCW since 2003, Ricanek previously worked for the Department of Defense. That experience keeps his focus.

“I know how hard these government entities and their dedicated staff work to keep the nation and the world safe. It is important that I contribute to those efforts. I want to have a fundamental impact on my country and its safety.”