Just a few days ago one of the first test integrations of WeChat facial recognition was announced (full details + screenshots below). This technology is starting to gain rapid adoption in China with examples popping up everywhere. Generally, China is still behind the US in AI but in face recognition, it’s now recognized as leading the world. Below I give you:
10 case studies of facial recognition technology being used today in China today
( a couple of which already work together with WeChat)
Above: face recognition tech in action on WeChat
1. WeChat facial recognition
The case study announced a few days ago was for the official Guangzhou City Law Courts WeChat mini program. The facial recognition is integrated into the login process which involves the user saying some numbers out loud. The process only works for Chinese nationals.
WeChat has yet to add face recognition as an option for login or payment but there’s little reason to doubt it will come at some point soon. The WeChat team won’t want to let bitter rival Alipay (who already have some basic features) take too much of a lead in this area for long.
Above: search for ‘Future’ in Alipay to get their face recognition features
2. The Government’s Skynet Program
Want to watch a scary video? Check out this one below demoing exactly what security cameras in China can do now.
The program behind this named Skynet is now actively being used by Chinese government agencies to do things such as track down fugitives, identify missing children and publicly shame jaywalkers.
3. Alipay ‘Smile to Pay’ in Hangzhou KFC
This one got a lot of press globally a few weeks back. Alipay now has a working demonstration for using facial recognition to pay in restaurants. I’ve yet to see any details as to if/when this would be rolled out nationwide.
Above: a snippet from the demo video
We covered this particular case study in a lot more detail on the weekly China Tech Talk Podcast if you want to have a listen.
4. Tencent Video’s new feature, ‘Only View Him/Her’（只看TA）
This brand new and convenient feature was promoted by Tencent a few days back. Using in-video face recognition they allow users the ability to view only the scenes with their favorite actor or actress, skipping the rest of the movie or serial show.
Above: promotional ad for ‘Only View Him/Her’（只看TA）
5. Simple face recognition tech in Chinese online marketing campaigns.
We’ve seen several case studies of Chinese companies using very simple face recognition in their marketing campaigns to edit photos. The People’s Daily kicked off this trend with their massively successful army campaign (see previous article).
Above: 3 examples of recent marketing campaigns
6. Plant and animal recognition technologies are already available on WeChat.
Beyond human face recognition, there are already mini-programs in WeChat that analyze and identify types of plants and breeds of dogs or cats from the pictures that you upload.
Above: search for 宠物人别 in WeChat
Above: search for 话帮主识花 in WeChat
7. In-built phone facial recognition
There’s now a race amongst phone manufactures to include inbuilt facial recognition capabilities such as those displayed by the new Xiaomi Note 3 and iPhone X.
Above: iPhone X facial recognition demonstration
Speaking of the iPhone X, recently there was a closed-door meeting between Apple and Tencent high-level management. From the picture released (see below), it’s clear some kind of cooperation was agreed. Watch this space for an announcement…
From left: Senior executive VP, Dowson Tong (汤道生), Chief strategy officer, James Mitchell, COO of Tencent, Mark Ren (任宇昕), Tencent CEO, Pony Ma (马化腾), some guy, not sure who he is, President of Tencent, Martin Lau (刘炽平), President of Weixin Group / Founder of WeChat, Alan Zhang (张小龙).
8. Face Recognition To Get Your Toilet Paper
In March this year, facial recognition toilet paper dispensers were installed in several Beijing public toilets to try and resolve the problem of excessive toilet paper usage. Scanning your face once will allow you to receive a 60 cm serving of paper.
Above: not sure if that guy a bit too tall for the face scan machine or if he already has a turtle’s head and trying his best to avert imminent disaster.
9. Suning’s Staffless Sports Stores
Suning (one of China’s largest electronics retailers) launched a series of unmaned stores earlier this year. Shoppers will first have to download and register their face on the Suning app. When they enter and leave the store all they need do is look at a screen to pay.
10. Another WeChat Case Study
Last week the WeChat team featured a video promoting their hotel industry solutions. The vid shows how WeChat can be used to drastically speed up check in and check out through a process that involves using facial recognition to confirm a customer’s ID.
The Tencent division that deals with facial recognition technologies are Tencent Youtu 腾讯优图. They have an interesting demo available at this address: http://open.youtu.qq.com/welcome/experience#/face-identify-exp
Gender is okay, not so sure about the age though…
Enough with case studies. Now for some brief analysis. Facial recognition tech lies at the epicenter of so many China tech trends. Let’s look at what’s driving this and why China is leading the world in this area?
1. Reducing the friction and increasing the convenience to pay
Anytime we reduce friction and increase the ease for consumers to pay for things then people ending up buying more stuff. It’s hard to imagine how easier things could get than walking into a store, grabbing something and then leaving with the in-store camera automatically identifying you and then directly debiting your account. We’re not quite there yet, but that reality doesn’t seem that far off either.
2. Technology is the new religion in China.
Chinese people are incredibly accepting of change and like to embrace new things. They expect continual improvement in the technology around them and this new technology is not questioned to the same degree was in the West.
Although it’s wrong to say Chinese have no concerns about privacy, we can definitely say that the overall level of concern is much lower than in the US or Europe. There are fewer suspicions of where their data is going or how it’s being used.
3. Strong government support
Facial recognition technology really hits the sweet spot of two areas that are top priorities for the Chinese government:
a. It is now the stated goal of the Chinese government to lead the world in AI related technologies by 2030.
b. The primary need for control of information and society. Ubiquitous facial recognition technology makes it much easier to track individuals.
A key difference in this area between China and the States is that it is much easier for startups in China to become profitable in this area as many government departments want solutions and have budget to pay.
4. High population density
China’s large busy urban areas make the investment in equipment more viable as there are numerous high foot traffic areas. The more times each piece of equipment is used per day, the easier to justify its fixed cost.
Above: facial recognition technology at a Chinese train station
Final thought… What about MY face?
Have you passed through a security check at a major Chinese airport recently? Then it’s likely that you face is already on record in a database somewhere. Integration of facial recognition technology as a security process is appearing across China at a rapid pace and it’s only a matter of time before it becomes the norm.
Facial recognition security at the Beijing airport