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New firm aims to be a Google for photos

Startup Polar Rose hopes to become to image search what Google and Yahoo are to text search.

By Paul R. La Monica, CNNMoney.com editor at large

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- If you've ever tried to look for a photo of a person using Google, Yahoo or another popular search engine, you know that it can be a frustrating, and far from perfect, experience.

But one startup company is hoping that its new technology will enable it to outdo the industry leaders.

TECHNOLOGY

Polar Rose, a tech firm based in Sweden, Tuesday unveiled a new image search tool that it plans officially to launch early next year. The company said that its image search technology is different from others since it relies on 3D mapping techniques to recognize facial patterns.

The image search functions of most search engines like Google (Charts), Yahoo (Charts), Microsoft's (Charts) MSN and IAC/InterActive's (Charts) Ask.com, on the other hand, analyze text tags that are associated with photos and not the actual content of the photo.

So, for example, if you search for a photo of Paris Hilton using Google's image search, one of the top photos showing up is for a Paris Hilton lookalike, not Paris herself.

Google, however, is testing a feature called Google Image Labeler, which lets users enter identification tags for random images. Google said that it has launched this feature in order to improve the relevance of image search results.

Mikkel Thagaard, Polar Rose's vice president of business development, said his firm has already been busy tagging photos of famous people so that when users do a search for those folks, they should only find matches to the actual person they were searching for.

Thagaard added that the company will allow users to download a plug-in software tool that can run in conjunction with any Web sites that have images on them but could be particularly useful for popular photo-sharing sites such as Yahoo's Flickr as well as social networking sites like MySpace, which is owned by News Corp (Charts)., or Facebook.

Web users can click on photos of themselves and enter their name as an identification tag so that if others type in a search for their image, their photo will be easy to find. In addition, Polar Rose's technology will allow people to search for photos of similar-looking people.

Jan Erik Solem, Polar Rose's chief technology officer and founder, said this function could come in especially handy on dating sites and other social networking sites.

The proliferation of user-generated photos has made searching for images a more important part of Web search. As such, Thagaard said the company hopes to generate revenue from advertising linked to the searches. Polar Rose's software will be free to download.

But Solem stated that Polar Rose's technology could also be used to analyze, index and find images of people from online video as well. The company does not have plans to roll out such technology just yet but hopes to do so in the future, he added.

Polar Rose announced in November that it had raised $5.1 million in funding from venture capitalists. But Polar Rose faces an uphill battle against the established search giants since Google and Yahoo both have billions of dollars on their balance sheets.

Mike McGuire, an analyst with Gartner Inc., added that Polar Rose could face some competition from image search firm CogniSign as well as video search firm Blinkx. Ultimately, McGuire said, Polar Rose's technology is useful and interesting, but it might need to be part of a larger company.

"Increasing numbers of people will publish photos online so this could be an important tool. But is this a standalone business? There is a possibility they could be acquired since the technology may be more valuable to another company as an ingredient for a social networking site."

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