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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Science of Beauty

Coral Lipstick—It's You! Or So Says a New Cosmetics Algorithm

Your cell phone could be your link to personally tailored beauty products



Hewlett Packard

Sick and tired of wasting time trying to find the perfect shade of makeup, only to discover that it's a mismatch once you go outside? Good news: getting the right foundation may soon be a mobile phone message away.

Hewlett-Packard has developed a new service capable of receiving photos from cell phone cameras, running them through sophisticated image-processing algorithms, and returning scientifically based recommendations for the shade of foundation, lipstick, blush and eye shadow that best suits a person's skin tone.

"The biggest issue with cosmetics is selecting the color," says Nina Bhatti, principal scientist at HP labs. "This is a common pain point—women can't find colors that look good on them."

According to Bhatti, the application will become available once HP announces the cosmetics company that it partnered with to bring this technology to consumers. HP is tight-lipped about which company it will be or how the service will be rolled out, and is leaving details like pricing up to its partner.

Once it's on the market, Bhatti says all consumers will need is a camera phone and an HP-produced sheet of paper bearing swatches of colors of known values—the sort of thing that could be included as an insert in a magazine.

Users need only snap photos of their faces while holding the sheet of color swatches beside them so that they show up in the head shots. After sending the image to a preassigned HP number (via SMS, the standard data transmission protocol for cell phones), it will be processed by computers employing algorithms capable of identifying both the user's face and the sheet of color swatches.

"It's the same technology that recognizes faces in digital cameras—the automatic red-eye remover," Bhatti says.

The real magic begins when, using the standard swatches as a reference, the software color-corrects the image. This process yields the true color of the user's skin, independent of the idiosyncrasies of the camera and the lighting conditions present when the shot was taken.

Once the system registers the user's actual skin tone, it's simply a matter of matching that color to a database of colors selected by professional makeup artists. These results are then texted back to the user. The entire process takes only a few seconds.

Bhatti says early reviews are positive. She notes that during trials, "women of all races said, 'Oh my god!' Even one woman with a huge amount of money who could go to any makeup counter said she'd like to get a specimen."

Melissa Kirsch, a Manhattan freelance writer, says she and friends welcome a hassle-free way to find makeup, noting that some department store personnel are so zealous "that they want nothing more than to get me on a barroom stool and make me up like a drag queen.''

Unlike HP's other competencies in color matching, which it usually applies to assuring that its color printers render true color, there is also an element of subjectivity in this service that is impossible to eliminate: the color choices of makeup artists who contributed to HP's database of skin types.

"We hired freelance experts," says Bhatti, "makeup artists you'd hire for events, a movie shooting or weddings."

But, as Kirsch points out, it's exactly these makeup professionals who get women into trouble in the first place.

"At the counter they'll say, 'Oh, your eyes are so beautiful—have you ever tried coral-colored mascara?'" says Kirsch. "Somebody else trying to tell you how to put on makeup—it's a fool's errand."

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