Recently, Japanese IT company NEC Corp. announced that it is developing an app with image recognition technology that allows its users to determine, in real time, whether or not that long sought-after Hermès Birkin bag is a knock-off or not. Once a target of aggressive piracy itself, NEC created the app in response to the increasing importance of managing the mass production and distribution of products internationally.
The app – due to be released in 2016 – lets its users compare their photos of leather goods, such as handbags and wallets, to data stored on the app’s cloud-based database. Extending existing biometric technology, NEC’s app can recognize “object fingerprints” (similar to human fingerprints, and also undetectable by the human eye), capturing details of fine patterns on leather, metal or plastic surfaces. By comparing object fingerprints in user photos against images stored in the app’s database with impressive accuracy (an error rate of one in one million), the app helps users determine authenticity immediately.
Currently, there is nothing quite comparable available in the marketplace to help consumers identify counterfeit products. While there exist various markers that brands will use to designate the authenticity of their goods (for instance, integrated circuit chips, hologram stickers, barcodes or other identification tags), these means can be both impractical to customers – not all leather goods bear one of these authenticating markers – and costly to the manufacturer. Further, accurate identification can often require either an expert’s evaluation or dedicated equipment.
In light of the significant cost of counterfeit products worldwide (most recently anticipated by the International Chamber of Commerce to exceed $1.7 trillion by 2015), NEC’s app is a potentially promising development in the battle against counterfeiters. But will it be able to reduce the problem in any meaningful way? Certainly, the app can be very helpful for consumers who purchase at brick-and-mortar retail outlets and care about purchasing genuine products. With the snap of a photo, any user can instantaneously determine whether an item advertised as “authentic” is what it claims to be. The app’s impact, however, may end where the internet begins. With e-retail on the rise, counterfeiters have become increasingly cunning, with legitimate-looking websites and price points, and photos of authentic products lifted from sites of authorized merchants. An unwitting customer could easily end up with a much different product than what was depicted online; and while the app may be useful in identifying that newly-acquired knock-off, the customer will likely have very little success in returning the fake product to its seller for a refund. What’s more, as the app is used only on a voluntary basis, consumers looking to purchase counterfeit products will not be deterred from doing so. Nevertheless, the mere threat of having counterfeits more easily detected by customers may help deter some level of counterfeiting activity.