On HP’s Racist Webcams (Or Lack Thereof)
To start, I’m sure many of you have seen or heard about the YouTube video of the black dude who shows that the webcam on the HP MediaCenter does not track his face but does track the face of his white co-worker. The vid is here, in case you haven’t seen. It’s pretty funny, too, because the dude (Desi) seems like a fun guy. When he says “I’m going to go on record and say HP computers are racist” you know he’s mostly joking, though it is really messed up that the camera doesn’t recognize his face as a face.
Now, this vid was uploaded to YouTube (ironically using the HP MediaCenter) on December 10th but it took a few days to really blow up around the ‘net. HP caught wind of it a couple of days ago and put up something on their blog mentioning lighting conditions and they were working to solve the problem and whatever. But that hasn’t stopped tons of commenters on blogs and Twitter and Facebook from declaring that HP is racist or, at least, its webcams are.
I find myself in a strange position here, because I’m about to say something I don’t normally say: people, there’s not racism here.
That’s not to say there isn’t a problem and a serious one. But it’s more along the lines of the stuff I pointed out yesterday with the digital frames. One of not thinking or considering, one of privilege and blindness, but I am failing to see how racism is involved.
Let’s back up a bit. In case you’re not sure what’s going on here technologically, there is a feature in some webcam software that is designed to zoom in on the face of a person looking into the camera. I don’t know why this feature is necessary, but obviously someone likes it. Anyway, Face Tracking is supposed to keep your face in close up no matter where you move within the webcam’s field of vision. It identifies what is a “face” by an algorithm I won’t even try to explain because I don’t know how it works. HP said something about measuring the distance between the eyes and cheekbones but, again, I have no clue. That is what Desi was trying to get to work in the video but could not.
The software behind all this is part of HP’s MediaCenter suite which looks like one big program all created by HP. However, that’s not exactly true. When I was playing around with the program I noticed that it was really similar to CyberLink’s YouCam software, from the way the buttons and settings menus were designed to the kinds of effects and avatars available.
It’s no secret that vendors often bring in third-party software then put their own branding on it. Why develop webcam software in house when perfectly good software already exists? You can find YouCam software on a ton of computers, not just HP, and you can also download it yourself. I put it on a computer of mine and tried the Face Tracking thing and it works the same. So, if anything, the software is “racist”, not the webcam and not the computer manufacturer.
Though HP probably did some testing to ensure that the software interacted well with their system, I doubt anyone at the company tested all of the features. That’s not their job, actually, that’s the job of the software developers. So if we’re going to look for culprits here, we need to turn our attention to CyberLink. I don’t know for sure, but I’m going to guess that the folks at CyberLink tested the Face Tracking with a few people, but either not with any dark-skinned employees (assuming they have some) or not in enough varying lighting conditions with said employees.
The webcams included with most notebooks and all-in-one PCs are not of the highest quality. They’re for Skype chatting and mking silly YouTube reaction videos or lip dubs. The brightness, contrast, and backlighting correction are rarely the best (I know, as I’ve tested dozens). And that’s where the software runs into problems.
Go look at this video, then this one. It shows that a simple change in the software’s settings makes the difference between the webcam being able to track the face of a dark-skinned person and not being able to. (Also note that different shades of dark skin make a difference, too.) So what’s the real problem here? It’s two fold: one, that the software developers didn’t properly take dark-skinned owners into consideration when creating the product. Two, that crappy webcams make everything worse in life.
Given all this, I don’t see racism here. I think this is a fine wake-up call for CyberLink or whoever actually made that software to expand their testing parameters. I am willing to bet that they probably didn’t take dark-skinned people into consideration, but I’m willing to be told I’m wrong. If they didn’t, it’s probably because all of the developers on the team were fairer-skinned (which doesn’t mean white. The webcam works fine for East Asian and light-skinned Black faces, for example). It’s looking more like a case of blindness due to privilege. Like I said, problematic, but not malicious or even unfixable.
For my part, I’m going to continue to enjoy the video that started it all. Because it’s damn funny. And though I hope people will stop just parroting the HP Is Racist line and start asking “Who made the software?” and “How can we get them to fix this problem?” I can’t force people to. Instead, I will just pop popcorn and watch the drama unfold.