UI student's facial-recognition technology wins $30,000

URBANA – For two years, John Wright has worked on ways to improve facial-recognition systems.

On Wednesday, those efforts paid off as the 26-year-old doctoral student won the Lemelson-Illinois Student Prize and the $30,000 that goes with it.

"To be honest, I don't have any plans for it now," Wright said. "I think my immediate plan is to save the money. I'm a student right now; I don't have many needs."

Wright was chosen from eight finalists – all University of Illinois graduate students in engineering – for the annual prize given for innovation and creativity.

His accomplishment: developing mathematical tools that improve the accuracy of facial-recognition systems. His system has a recognition rate of 91 percent – 13 percent better than the nearest competitor.

Already, the UI's Office of Technology Management is negotiating to license the technology to three companies, Wright said. One wants to use it for organizing photo collections. Another wants to use it for controlling access to buildings. A third intends to use it in connection with social networking.

Altogether, about 10 companies have expressed interest in the technology, said David Washburn, a senior technology manager with that office.

Wright, who is from Chesterfield, Mo., expects to receive his doctorate in October and is considering going to work for Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing as a researcher. He said he likes the Microsoft Research atmosphere.

"It's a very free environment, fairly unconstrained, where you can work on whatever problem you'd like," he said.

To come up with the improved facial recognition-system, Wright said, he used a new type of mathematics called sparse representation and compressed sensing.

"It seemed to fit the face-recognition problem really well," he said, noting that researchers have spent 30 years working on the problem.

Facial-recognition systems have been used at Boston's Logan Airport, by the Tampa, Fla., police department and at the 2001 Super Bowl, among other places. But sometimes the results have been disappointing.

To develop his system, Wright said he took "training images" of people who work in the Coordinated Science Laboratory on campus.

"We were giving them pizza as bribes," he said.

Beyond that pool of 120 people, he has used the system on public databases containing images of as many as 350 people, he said.

Wright said his interview with the Lemelson-Illinois judges was "a little bit tough."

"I was in Beijing, and I had to go to work at 4 in the morning to do the teleconference," he said. "I don't know how I got through that interview."

Though he's considered the principal researcher on the project, Wright credited his adviser, Yi Ma, and Allen Yang of the University of California-Berkeley, as well as fellow graduate students Andrew Wagner, Arvind Ganesh and Zihan Zhou for their collaborative efforts.

"I'm lucky to work with so many people with strong abilities and talents that complement mine," he said.

At Wednesday's ceremony, Ma said Wright's innovations amount to "nothing short of a revolutionary approach." One of Wright's math professors, Robert Fossum, called Wright one of the best students he's known in 44 years at the UI. He said Wright's mathematical contributions alone are "enough for a thesis in pure mathematics in my opinion."

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