Face++, the technology behind Alipay’s “smile-to-pay” feature, may one day take over facial recognition ID in mobile payments.
The technology claims to be able to do three things: locate facial features – detect age, race, and expression – and facial recognition, which can be used to verify identity and search for people. The company provides SDKs and APIs for developers who want to use the technology in their apps. Currently, the basic API-based service is available for free and the offline SDK version is available for businesses.
In many ways, Face++’s development parallels the development of the human face as a form of biometric ID. As CEO Yinqi told state-run portal China Economic Net in December, “every geek has a dream of changing the world with technology. Lucky for us, our dream flies in the same direction as a big wind funnel.”
After receiving its angel investment from Legend Star in 2012, Face++’s business took off in 2013 when it started working with Meitu to locate facial features on its apps and on its smartphones. Face++ also received Series A investment from Innovation Works in 2013. Investor Kai-fu Lee said, “in terms of technology, I think there is no doubt that they are one of the very best teams in the world in this area.”
Face++’s technology is owned by Beijing-based Megvii, which was established in October 2011 by three Tsinghua University grads. In 2012, they launched Megvii’s first flagship product, Face++ version 1.0. But the team didn’t try to sell it right away. Instead, they made it into an open platform. Over 10,000 developers used the free service and provided over two million pictures in return, which the team used to develop its algorithm.
In 2014, Megvii became one of the first companies to use its technology for ID purposes on a financial app when it partnered with Ant Financial, an internet banking platform affiliated with Alibaba. The company’s reputation in this field was cemented in 2015, when Alibaba founder Jack Ma used his face as an ID to buy a stamp from Alibaba at CeBIT. Alipay launched a facial recognition login feature for iOS and Android smartphones in December.
Face++ now works with 15,000 apps covering more than 4000 monthly active devices. Over 24,000 developers are active on its platform.
According to Transparency Market Research, driven by the rising use of facial recognition technology in web applications, the global facial recognition market will be worth close to USD 2.7 billion by 2022.
With giants like Facebook, Apple, Yahoo and Google all developing their own face recognition technologies, what differentiates a product in this market will be in part due to the quality of the technology and its ability to surmount obstacles like regulation to cover a large slice of the market. Based on tests conducted by each individual company, Face++ has an accuracy rate of 97.67%, while Facebook’s DeepFace has a 97.35% accuracy rate and Google’s technology has a 99.96% accuracy rate.
Although Face++ technology is already being used by Xiaomi Financial, Minsheng Bank, Jiangsu Bank, Zhongxin Bank, and Pingan Bank, its biggest competitor in the financial application of its technology may be Tencent. Tencent’s Webank app is backed by a strategic cooperation with the National Citizen Identity Information Center under the Ministry of Public Security which will undoubtedly give it an edge when navigating regulation obstacles. Webank launched a trial run of its facial recognition-enabled internet banking service on Jan. 22. Other parties like Chongqing company Cloud Walk and Hangzhou-based Tzekwan Technology in cooperation with Tsinghua University have already released facial recognition technology in ATMs.