HP's racial webcam woes -- just a case of bad lighting?

A YouTube video claims that integrated HP webcams don't recognize black faces

A YouTube video succinctly titled "HP Computers Are Racist" received wide exposure earlier this week; Apparently, HP's Media Smart webcam's Face Tracking software has trouble tracking people with darker complexions.

We decided to take a look at the issue ourselves, gathering volunteers from around the PC World office and sitting them down in front of a PC that uses this technology — the HP Touchsmart 300 (see our video review of this HP all-in-one).

Our Tests

From our testing, it's pretty clear that the Media Smart software does have trouble with darker skin gradients. We aren't experts on the technology, so we gathered folks with a wide variety of skin tones (including the occasional celebrity photo). We also sampled the software in several locations — our brightly lit Test Labs, your typical flourescent-lit cubicle, and a dimly lit office.

Our results seem to indicate that the issue has less to do with race, and more to do with how the algorithm handles lighting. In our own video, we dropped some of our test subjects in front of the camera in a dimly lit office. We had each subject try to engage the face tracking software, and occasionally toggled the lighting.

While the software missed one of our co-workers with a darker complexion entirely, another who was a bit lighter was tracked with ease — under the right conditions. Wearing glasses or approaching the camera from the wrong angle also confused it a bit.

Conclusion

The problem itself is rather minor: face tracking on the Media Smart webcam is optional, designed to keep the camera focused on you during your more animated conversations. It's a feature of little consequence, which has trouble operating under the wrong lighting conditions.

But while the original video is more of a sarcastic poke at a technical snafu than pointed moral outrage, adding race to the equation turns a glitch into a PR nightmare.

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Nate Ralph

PC World (US online)
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