Facing the future

A system that takes just seconds to age a child’s image by decades could become a valuable tool in the search for missing persons.

A system that takes just seconds to age a child’s image by decades could become a valuable tool in the search for missing persons.

Following preliminary tests, researchers at the University of Kent plan to develop a technique that produces a highly accurate rendition of an adult face from a picture of the subject as a child.

A photograph is an important tool for those trying to locate a missing person, but children’s features can change significantly in just a few years.

The research is backed by the Metropolitan Police and the National Missing Persons Helpline, which hope it will improve on current methods that can take up to 30 hours to produce an image of erratic accuracy.

The Kent team will work with Dundee University to develop algorithms that can age a facial image. Spin-out forensic technology company VisionMetric aims to commercialise the finished system.

Dr Christopher Solomon of Kent’s School of Physical Sciences, and the project’s principal investigator, said: ‘We have developed a theoretical framework which suggests we can do this semi-automatically.

How a subject looks aged eight, the systems projected image at 18 and how the subject really looks at 18.

‘Essentially, a photograph is presented to the system, and a number of key facial landmarks such as the corner of the eyes, mouth and nostrils are annotated. Once these have been identified a calculation can be made and out comes the image.’

Using a statistical theoretical framework, the researchers will compile a photographic database enabling them to study trends and so predict the facial changes to produce a more accurate image.

For the system to achieve this, a statistical training process will be carried out, which will consider two key factors — the variation in children’s faces over a number of key stages in development such as the onset of puberty — where a large degree of facial changes are shared in common — and the tendency for the child to mimic the facial development of the parent.

‘Our method tries to combine these tendencies and trends together,’ said Solomon. The ultimate aim of the work is to be able to scan a missing person’s photograph, select the desired age and receive an accurate image rapidly at a fraction of the previous cost. It would be available for use via the internet.

Solomon said he was encouraged by the initial test results.

Full-scale work on the project begins in February.

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