Tech

Move over 'Virgin Mary toast,' computers can search Google Maps for mountain faces

By Jordan Mammo , May 31, 2013 05:04 PM EDT

Every once in a while, we'll hear a story about someone who's discovered some kind of image in their food, or the dirt, or who knows where else. Remember the Virgin Mary that appeared in toast? Or chips that look like Elvis Presley?

While much of the images that make the news are of religious figures, the human ability to find faces in weird places is pretty well documented. It even has a name - Pariedolia - and it's coming to Google Maps.

Developed by the German design team over at Onformative, the program scans Google Maps and detects face-like images in the landscape. The special facial recognition algorithm uses Google Maps' satellite imagery to find landscape faces, and has already circumnavigated the globe a few times over.

While the program sifts through satellite images, it also zooms in and out as much as possible, exploring different angles and perspectives for faces. Now, humans picking out faces in places is one thing, but creating an entire automated system to do it for us is pretty impressive. What's more, the program looks through mountains, fields, and even cities to find what it wants.

"One of the key aspects of this project, is the autonomy of the face searching agent and the amount of data we are investigating," Onformative's website reads. "The source of our image data is halfway voluntary provided by Google Maps. Our agent flips through one satellite image after the other, in order to feed the face detection algorithm with landscape samples. The corresponding iteration algorithm steps sequentially along the latitude and longitude of our globe. Once the agent circumnavigated the world, it switches to the next zoom level and starts all over again."

As cool as this technology is, though, what's the point? Onformative says that the human ability to detect patterns is crucial considering how it has helped us make scientific breakthroughs. The question it wanted to answer was, "Is a machine capable of Pareidolia?" At this point, the answer seems to be a clear cut yes, but perhaps this pattern detection technology can be used in the future to uncover secrets we have yet to discover.

It's also pretty fun. As Onformative said, "we also tend to use this ability to enrich our imagination. Hence we recognize meaningful shapes in clouds or detect a great bear upon astrological observations."

Chances are these landscape faces can't be sold for nearly $30,000 like the Virgin Mary, but I guess enriching our imagination is good enough.

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