Face Recognition at a Distance (Face Recognition Techniques) Part 1


Face recognition, and biometric recognition in general, have made great advances in the past decade. Still, the vast majority of practical biometric recognition applications involve cooperative subjects at close range. Face Recognition at a Distance (FRAD) has grown out of the desire to automatically recognize people out in the open, and without their direct cooperation. The face is the most viable biometric for recognition at a distance. It is both openly visible and readily imaged from a distance. For security or covert applications, facial imaging can be achieved without the knowledge of the subject. There is great interest in iris at a distance, however it is doubtful that iris will outperform face with comparable system complexity and cost. Gait information can also be acquired over large distances, but face will likely continue to be a more discriminating identifier.

In this topic, we will review the primary driving applications for FRAD and the challenges still faced. We will discuss potential solutions to these challenges and review relevant research literature. Finally, we will present a few specific activities to advance FRAD capabilities and discuss expected future trends. For the most part, we will focus our attention on issues that are unique to FRAD.

Distance itself is not really the fundamental motivating factor for FRAD. The real motivation is to work over large coverage areas without subject cooperation.

On the left, a face recognition at a distance application showing tracked and identified subjects in wide field-of-view video (upper left), high-resolution narrow field-of-view video from an automatically controlled PTZ camera (bottom), and a detected and recognized facial image (upper right). On the right, some of the facial images captured by the system over a few minutes, selected to show the variation in facial image quality

Fig. 14.1 On the left, a face recognition at a distance application showing tracked and identified subjects in wide field-of-view video (upper left), high-resolution narrow field-of-view video from an automatically controlled PTZ camera (bottom), and a detected and recognized facial image (upper right). On the right, some of the facial images captured by the system over a few minutes, selected to show the variation in facial image quality

The nature of the activity of subjects and the size of the coverage area can vary considerably with the application and this impacts the degree of difficulty. Subjects may be sparse and standing or walking along predictable trajectories, or they may be crowded, moving in a chaotic manner, and occluding each other. The coverage area may range from a few square meters at a doorway or choke point, to a transportation terminal, building perimeter, city block, or beyond. Practical solutions do involve image capture from a distance, but the field might be more accurately called face recognition of noncooperative subjects over a wide area. Figure 14.1 shows a FRAD system operating in a parking lot. There are two primary difficulties faced by FRAD. First, acquiring facial images from a distance. Second, recognizing the person in spite of imperfections in the captured data.

There are a wide variety of commercial, security, defense and marketing applications of FRAD. Some of the most important potential applications include:

•    Access control: Unlock doors when cleared persons approach.

•    Watch-list recognition: Raise an alert when a person of interest, such as a known terrorist, local offender or disgruntled ex-employee is detected in the vicinity.

•    White-list recognition: Raise an alert whenever a person not cleared for the area is detected.

•    Rerecognition: Recognize people recently imaged by a nearby camera for automatic surveillance with long-range persistent tracking.

•    Event logging: For each person entering a region, catalog the best facial image.

•    Marketing: Understand long-term store customer activities and behavior.

The focus in that topic is somewhat complementary, covering system issues and a more detailed look at illumination levels, optics and image sensors for face imaging at distances up to the 100-300 m range and beyond with both theoretical analysis and practical design advice.

Primary Challenges

In the ideal imaging conditions for 2D face recognition, the subject is illuminated in a uniform manner, is facing a color camera with a neutral expression and the image has a resolution with 200 or more pixels eye-to-eye. These conditions are easily achieved with a cooperative subject at close range.

With FRAD, the subject is by definition not at close range, but perhaps more importantly, the level of cooperation is reduced. Applications of FRAD for cooperative subjects are at best unusual and rare. In typical FRAD applications, subjects are not cooperative, and this is the scenario that is assumed in most research work on FRAD. Noncooperative subjects may be either unaware that facial images are being collected, or aware but unconcerned, perhaps due to acclimation. That is, they are neither actively cooperating with the system, nor trying to evade the system.

A much more challenging situation occurs when subjects are actively evasive. A subject may attempt to evade face capture and recognition by obscuring their face with a hat, glasses or other adornments, or by deliberately looking away from cameras or downward. In such situations it might still be beneficial for a system to automatically determine that the subject is evasive.

In a sense, FRAD is not a specific core technology or basic research problem. It can be viewed as an application and a system design problem. Some of the challenges in that design are specific to FRAD, but many are broader face recognition challenges that are discussed and addressed throughout this topic. The main challenges of FRAD are concerned with the capture of facial images that have the best quality possibly, and with processing and face recognition that is robust to the remaining imperfections. These challenges can be organized into a few categories, which we discuss below.

The first challenge of FRAD is simply acquiring facial images for subjects who may be 10-30 m or more away from the sensor. Some of the optics issues to consider are lens parameters, exposure time, and the effect on the image when any compromise is made.

Optics and Light Intensity

As subject distance increases, a primary issue is the selection or adjustment of the camera lens to maintain field of view and image intensity. As the distance from the camera to the subject is increased the focal length of the camera lens must be increased proportionally if we are to maintain the same field of view, or image sampling resolution. That is, if the subject distance is doubled, then the focal length, F, must be doubled to maintain a facial image size of, say, 200 pixels eye-to-eye.

The light intensity a lens delivers to the image sensor is proportional to the f-number. The f-number, N, of a lens is the focal length divided by the diameter of the entrance pupil, D, or N = F/D. To maintain image brightness, and thus contrast and signal to noise ratio, the f-number must be maintained. So, if the subject distance is doubled and the focal length is doubled, then the f-number of that particular lens must be maintained by doubling the pupil diameter. Of course, an image sensor with greater sensitivity may also be used to compensate for a reduction in light intensity from the lens.

If the pupil diameter for a lens is already restricted with an adjustable aperture stop, then increasing the pupil diameter to maintain the f-number is simply a matter of adjusting that setting. Adjustments to the pupil diameter are usually described in terms of the resulting f-number, and are typically called f-stops. The f-stops are defined as the f-number at the image when the lens is focused at infinity or very far away.

However, as subject distance is increased, eventually an adjustable aperture will be fully open and the pupil aperture will be limited by the size of the lens itself. So, imaging faces well at larger distances generally requires larger lenses, which have larger glass elements, are heavier and more expensive. Another drawback to increasing the diameter of the lens is a reduction in depth of field (DOF), the range over which objects are well focused. However, DOF is inherently larger at larger object distances, so this is often less of a concern for FRAD.

Exposure Time and Blur

There are a number of different types of image distortion that can be of concern when capturing faces at a distance. If an appropriate lens is selected, then a facial image captured at a distance can be as bright as an image captured at close range. However, this is not always the situation. Lenses with large diameters are expensive or simply may not be in place. When the lens does not have a low enough f-number (large enough aperture relative to the focal length), the amount of light reaching the image sensor will be too low and the image SNR will be reduced. If the image is amplified to compensate, sensor noise will be amplified as well and the resulting image will be noisy. Without amplification, the image will be dark.

If the light intensity at the sensor is too low, the exposure time for each image can be increased to compensate. However, this introduces a trade-off with motion blur. The subjects being imaged are generally in motion. If the exposure time is long enough that the motion of the subjects is significant during the exposure, then some degree of blurring will occur.

FRAD systems often utilize active pan-tilt camera control. Mechanical vibration of the camera can be significant in such systems and is another source of blur. At very long distances, atmospheric distortion and haze can also contribute to image distortion.

Image Resolution

In FRAD applications that lack an optimal optical system to provide an ideal image to the sensor, resolution of the resulting facial image can be low. In some cases, it may be desired to recognize people in video from a stationary camera where facial image resolution is low due to subject distance. An active camera system with automatic pan, tilt and zoom may simply reach its capture distance limit, but one may still want to recognize people at greater distances. No matter how the optical system is designed, there is always some further desired subject distance and in these cases facial image resolution will be reduced. Facial recognition systems that deal with low-resolution facial images are certainly desirable.

Pose, Illumination and Expression

The Pose, Illumination and Expression (PIE) challenges are not unique to FRAD. There are many other face recognition applications that share these challenges. The PIE challenges are, however, somewhat customized and more pronounced in FRAD.

In many FRAD applications, it is desirable to mount cameras well above people’s heads, as is done for most ordinary security cameras. This allows for the imaging of people’s faces over a wider area with less occlusion. A disadvantage is that the viewing angle of faces has a slight downward tilt, often called the “surveillance perspective.”

The pan angle (left-right) of faces in FRAD applications can in the worst cases be completely arbitrary. In open areas where there are no regular travel directions, this will be the case. Corridors and choke points are more favorable situations, generally limiting the directions in which people are facing. People tend to face the direction of their travel. When faces can be oriented in many directions, the use of a distributed set of active pan-tilt-zoom cameras can help [25]. Still, the variation of facial capture pan angle can be high.

There is some hope for this inherent pose problem with FRAD, and it is observation time. A wide-area active camera system may be able to observe and track a walking subject for 5-10 seconds or more. A stationary or loitering person may be observed for a much longer period of time. A persistent active face capture system, may eventually opportunistically capture a facial image of any particular subject with a nearly straight-on pose angle.

Most FRAD applications are deployed outdoors with illumination conditions that are perhaps the most challenging. Illumination is typically from sunlight or distributed light fixtures. The direction and intensity of the sunlight will change with the time of day, the weather and the seasons. Over the capture region there may be large objects such as trees and buildings that both block and reflect light, and alter the color of ambient light, increasing the variation of illumination over the area.

Subjects who are not trying to evade the system and who are not engaged in conversation will for the most part have a neutral expression. Of the PIE set of challenges, the expression issue is generally less of a concern for FRAD.


There are two basic approaches to FRAD: high-definition stationary cameras, and active camera systems. FRAD generally means face recognition not simply at a distance, but over a wide area. Unfortunately, a wide camera viewing area that captures the entire coverage area results in low image resolution. Conversely, a highly zoomed camera that yields high-resolution facial images has a narrow field of view.

High-Definition Stationary Camera

If a FRAD capture sensor is to operate over a 20 m wide area with a single camera and we require 100 pixels across captured faces, then we would need a camera with about 15 000 pixels of horizontal resolution. Assuming an ordinary sensor aspect ratio, this is a 125 megapixel sensor and not currently practical. If we were to use a high-definition 1080 by 1920 pixel camera to image the full 20 m wide area, a face would be imaged with a resolution of about 13 by 7 pixels.

If the coverage region is not too large, say 2 m across, then a single stationary high-definition 1080 by 1920 camera could image faces in the region with about 100 pixels eye-to-eye. This is not very high resolution for face recognition, but may be sufficient for verification or low-risk applications. If the desired coverage area grows, and stationary cameras are still used, then the camera resolution would have to increase, or multiple cameras would be required.

Active-Vision Systems

FRAD is more often addressed with a multi-camera system where one or more Wide field Of view (WFOV) cameras view a large area with low-resolution and one or more Narrow Field OfView (NFOV) cameras are actively controlled to image faces with high resolution using pan, tilt and zoom (PTZ) commands. Through the use of face detection or person detection, and possibly tracking, the location of people is determined from the WFOV video. The NFOV are targeted to detected or tracked people through pan and tilt control, and possibly also adaptive zoom control. The WFOV and NFOV cameras are sometimes called the master and slave cameras, and NFOV cameras are often simply called PTZ cameras.

This is also often described as a “foveated imaging” or “focus-of-attention” approach and it somewhat mimics the human visual system, where a wide angular range is monitored with relatively low resolution and the eyes are actively directed toward areas of interest for more detailed resolution. This is especially the case when the WFOV and NFOV cameras are co-located.

What we describe here is a prototypical approach. There are of course many possible modifications and improvements. A single camera may be used with a system that enables switching between WFOV and NFOV lenses, with the additional challenge that wide-field video coverage will not be continuous. A low-zoom WFOV camera may not be stationary, but could instead pan and tilt with a high-zoom NFOV camera, more like the human eye or a finderscope. Instead of using a WFOV camera, a single NFOV camera could continuously scan a wide area by following a pan and tilt angle pattern. One could use many WFOV cameras and many NFOV cameras in a single cooperative network. Clearly, there are many options for improving upon the prototypical approach, with various advantages and disadvantages.

When multiple subjects are present a multi-camera system must decide somehow how to schedule its NFOV camera or cameras. It needs to determine when to point the camera at each subject. There has been considerable research effort put into this NFOV resource allocation and scheduling problem, which becomes more complicated as more NFOV cameras are utilized. Some of the factors that a scheduling algorithm may account for include: which subjects are facing one of the NFOV cameras, the number of times each subject’s face has been captured thus far, the quality and resolution of those images, the direction of travel and speed of each subject, and perhaps the specific location of each subject. An NFOV target scheduling algorithm accounts for some desired set of factors such as these and determines when and where to direct the NFOV cameras using their pan, tilt and zoom controls.

Literature Review


Most test databases for face recognition contain images or video captured at close range with cooperative subjects. They are thus best suited for training and testing face recognition for access control applications. However, there are a few datasets that are more suitable for face recognition at a distance development and evaluation.

The database collected at the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) for the DARPA Human ID program [40] includes close-up still images and video of subjects and also video of persons walking toward a still camera from distances of up to 13.6 m and video of persons talking and gesturing from approximately 8 m. The collection was performed indoors, but in a large open area with one wall made entirely of glass, approximating outdoor lighting conditions. A fairly low zoom factor was used in this collection.

Yao et al. [58] describe the University of Tennessee, Knoxville Long Range High Magnification (UTK-LRHM) face database of moderately cooperative subjects at distances between 10 m and 20 m indoors, and extremely long distances between 50 m and 300 m outdoors. Indoor zoom factors are between 3 and 20, and outdoor zoom factors range up to 284. Imaging at such extremes can result in distortion due to air temperature and pressure gradients, and the optical system used exhibits additional blur at such magnifications.

The NIST Multiple Biometric Grand Challenge (MBGC) is focused on face and iris recognition with both still images and video and has sponsored a series of challenge problems. In support of the unconstrained face recognition challenges, this program has collected high-definition and standard definition outdoor video of subjects walking toward the camera and standing at ranges of up to about 10 m. Since subjects were walking toward the camera, frontal views of their faces were usually visible. MBGC is also making use of the DARPA Human ID data described above [39].

It is important to remember that as distance increases, people also have increased difficulty in recognizing faces. Face recognition results from Pittsburgh Pattern Recognition on MBGC uncontrolled video datasets (of the subjects walking toward the camera) are comparable to and in some cases superior to face recognition results by humans on the same data [39].

Each of these databases captures images or video with stationary cameras. FRAD sensors are generally real-time actively controlled camera systems. Such hardware systems are difficult to test offline. The evaluation of active camera systems with shared or standardized datasets is not feasible because real-time software and hardware integration aspects are not modeled. Components of these systems, such as face detection, person detection, tracking and face recognition itself can be tested in isolation on appropriate shared datasets. But interactions between the software and hardware components can only be fully tested on live action scenes. Virtual environments can also be used to test many aspects of an active-vision system [43-45] (Sect.

Active-Vision Systems

There have been a great many innovations and systems developed for wide-area person detection and tracking to control NFOV cameras to capture facial images at a distance. We review a selected group of publications in this section, in approximate chronological order. A few of the systems described here couple face capture to face recognition. All are motivated by this possibility.

In some very early work in this area, Stillman et al. [52] developed an active camera system for person identification using two WFOV cameras and two NFOV cameras. This real-time system worked under some restricted conditions, but over a range of several meters, detected people based on skin color, triangulated 3D locations, and pointed NFOV cameras at faces. A commercial face recognition system then identified the individuals. Interestingly, the motivation for this effort, at its time in history, was to make an intelligent computing environment more aware of people present in order to improve the interaction. No mention is made of security.

Greiffenhagen et al. [21] describe a dual camera face capture system where the WFOV camera is an overhead omnidirectional camera and the NFOV has pan, tilt and zoom control. The authors use a systematic engineering methodology in the design of this real-time system, and perform a careful statistical characterization of components of the system so that measurement uncertainty can be carried through and a face capture probability of 0.99 can be guaranteed. While face recognition was not applied to the captured images, they are of sufficient quality for recognition. The system handles multiple subjects as long as the probability of occlusion is small.

Zhou et al. [64] have developed their Distant Human Identification (DHID) system to collect biometric information of humans at a distance, for face recognition and gait. A single WFOV camera has a 60° field of view and enables tracking of persons out to a distance of 50 m. A combination of background subtraction, temporal differencing, optical flow and color-based blob detection is used for person detection and tracking. The system aims to capture short zoomed-in video sequences for gait recognition and relatively high-resolution facial images. Person detections from the WFOV video are used to target the NFOV camera initially, and then the NFOV tracks the subject based only on the NFOV video data.

Marchesotti et al. [34] have also developed a two-camera face capture at a distance system. Persons are detected and tracked using a blob detector in the WFOV video, and an NFOV camera is panned and tilted to acquire short video clips of subject faces.

A face cataloger system has been developed and described by Hampapur et al. [22]. This system uses two widely separated WFOV cameras with overlapping views of a 20 ft. by 19 ft. lab space. To detect persons, a 2D multi-blob tracker is applied to the video from each WFOV camera and these outputs are combined by a 3D multi-blob tracker to determine 3D head locations in a calibrated common coordinate system. An active camera manager then directs the two pan-tilt NFOV cameras to capture facial images. In this system, a more aggressive zoom factor is used when subjects are moving more slowly. The authors experimentally demonstrate a trade-off between NFOV zoom and the probability of successfully capturing a facial image. When the NFOV zoom factor is higher, the required pointing accuracy is greater, so there is a higher likelihood of missing the subject. This would be a general trend with all active camera systems. Later work described by Senior et al. [51] simplified and advanced the calibration procedure and was demonstrated outdoors.

Bagdanov et al. [2] have developed a method for capturing facial images over a wide area with a single active pan-tilt camera. In this approach, reinforcement learning is employed to discover the camera control actions that maximize the chance of acquiring a frontal face image given the current appearance of object motion as seen from the camera in its home position. Essentially, the system monitors object motion with the camera in its home position and over time learns if, when and where to zoom in for a facial image. A frontal face detector applied after each attempt guides the learning. Some benefits are that this approach uses a single camera and requires no camera calibration.

Prince [41, 42], Elder [19] et al. have developed a system that addresses collection and pose challenges. They make use of a foveated sensor using a stationary camera with a 135° field of view and a foveal camera with a 13° field of view. Faces are detected via the stationary camera video using motion detection, background modeling and skin detection. A pan and tilt controller directs the foveal camera to detected faces. Since the system detects people based on face detection it naturally handles partially occluded and stationary people.

Davis et al. [16, 17] have developed methods to automatically scan a wide area and detect persons with a single PTZ camera. Their approach detects human behavior and learns the frequency with which humans appear across the entire coverage region so that scanning is done efficiently. Such a strategy might be used to create a one-camera active face capture system, or to greatly increase the coverage area if used as a WFOV camera.

Multi-camera person tracking with crowding (above) and person tracking and active NFOV face capture (below)

Fig. 14.2 Multi-camera person tracking with crowding (above) and person tracking and active NFOV face capture (below)

Krahnstoever et al. [25] have developed a face capture at a distance framework and prototype system. Four fixed cameras with overlapping viewpoints are used to pervasively track multiple subjects in a 10 m by 30 m region. Tracking is done in a real-world coordinate frame, which drives the targeting and control of four separate PTZ cameras that surround the monitored region. The PTZ cameras are scheduled and controlled to capture high-resolution facial images, which are then associated with tracker IDs. An optimization procedure schedules target assignments for the PTZ cameras with the goal of maximizing the number of facial images captured while maximizing facial image quality. This calculation is based on the apparent subject pose angle and distance. This opportunistic strategy tends to capture facial images when subjects are facing one of the PTZ cameras.

Bellotto et al. [5] describe an architecture for active multi-camera surveillance and face capture where trackers associated with each camera, and high-level reasoning algorithms communicate via an SQL database. Information from persons detected by WFOV trackers can be used to assign actively controlled NFOV cameras to particular subjects. Once NFOV cameras are viewing a face, the face is tracked and the NFOV camera follows the face with a velocity control system.

In Yu et al. [61], the authors have used this system [25] to monitor groups of people over time, associate an identity with each tracked person and record the degree of close interaction between identified individuals. Figure 14.2 shows person tracking and face capture from this system. This allows for the construction of a social network that captures the interactions, relationships and leadership structure of the subjects under surveillance.

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