"When I walked out of my first class, the bike my grandmother bought me as a high shcool graduation gift had been stolen" he said. "It was an awful feeling."
Later that day, one of his teachers would tell his class that if they wanted to make a mark, they should try to solve a problem that was being ignored. "I decided, then and there, that I would end bike theft."
French spent the next four years getting a Mechanical Engineering degree, but really he was working on the bike theft problem. "I looked at dozens of technologies and went down a lot of blind alleys, mostly looking at how to make better locks." But then his girlfriend dragged him to a symposium on facial recognition systems and he had a breakthrough. "It was all about how casinos were using FRS to identify card counters and keep them away from the blackjack table, but I realized if we can train computers to identify one face out of millions chosen at random, we could teach them to pick out a single bike."
He went to work at In-Q-Tel, a high-tech venture capital firm associated with the CIA located in Arlington, VA. There he was assigned to consult with A4Vision, a facial imaging subsidiary. There he learned the limits and capabilities of FRS while working alongside experts in the field. "Identifying an object is both easier and harder than identifying a face" he says. Easier, because objects don't change moment to moment the way faces do. Harder because objects have less variability. "It's very difficult for a computer to tell the difference between two different i-phones, for example." Nonetheless, in a couple of years he was ready to spin off his own company called Bicognize, with support from In-Q-Tel. "That was the deal all along. They like to see new technology being developed, and so they've been willing to help incubate this idea."
And French now thinks Bicognize has the technology to make bike theft a thing of the past. "Basically, we're hoping to destroy the secondary market for stolen bikes."
Bicognize uses two strategies to do that.
"First of all, you can become a member. That's free. We ask you to upload 8 photos of the bike from specific angles, which our website makes easy and with that we create a 3-D image of your bike. Now you might think your bike looks like a lot of other bikes, but we can use paint nicks, dents and customization to individualize your bike. If it's particularly new, we'll send you small stickers to attach at random places to make your bike unique."
Don't worry if you get new rims or a new handlebar, the system can account for that - though best practice is to upload new photos, and members will be asked to do so periodically.
If your bike is stolen, contact Bicognize and that's when the real work starts - and when the fee kicks in. Bicognize is constantly searching thousands of new photos on many sites including Flickr, photobucket, ebay and, of course, Craigslist for photos of bikes. It then compares those photos to ones in their stolen bike database. When a match is found, the member is immediately contacted. "We've been testing this on our own. Once a photo of a "stolen" bike is put on Craigslist, the longest it's taken Bicognize to find it has been 20 minutes." That gives the owner a chance to contact the police and recover the bike.
But you don't have to be a member to use Bicognize. "You just need a photo of your bike. Then if your bike is stolen, you can upload a photo to Bicognize and we can do the same search." But, French warns, depending on the quality and quantity of the photos - and the uniqueness of your bike, there could be more false hits and fewer positives.
Unwilling to settle for photos that come their way organically, Bicognize will cast their net wider by asking the public to help. They're going to pay people to be bicycle bounty hunters. "Our Bicycle Bounty Hunter app let's anyone take a photo of any bike and upload it to our site. If we get a hit and a recovery thanks to a photo you take, then we'll pay you $1000," French says. People shopping for a used bike will be asked to take photos, or request them from the seller, to submit before buying. "And if it results in a stolen bike recovery, then again, we'll cut you a $1000 check."
The DC-based company has 5 employees right now, but plans to ramp up once the system goes live in May or June. "We're working on deals with insurance companies which will allow their customers to use our service for free - with the insurance company payring a flat fee, and once those are all inked, we'll be ready to go."
And once they do, French hopes, so will the bike thieves. "The funny thing is, if this really works, I might put myself out of business" he says with a grin.
Bicognize is starting a pilot program in the DC area, and you can sign up to be one of the charter members here.