Hair apparent? New tech reveals bald truths

Hairspray features 75,749,327 strands of hair (official)
Hairspray features 75,749,327 strands of hair (official)

"It's a boring job and results are prone to errors and variations between different people," says Dr Pascal Valloton of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia's national science agency.

Watching paint dry? Pulling the wings off insects? Dry-cleaning Sarah Palin's wardrobe?

No, the role that Dr Valloton's research team has just succeeded in automating is that little-known profession of hair counter.

No longer will human assessors spend their days enumerating follicles and classifying split ends, as software developed by CSIRO's Biotech Imaging department can count the number, length, and visibility of hair on a patch of skin much more quickly and reliably than a real person.

"Our software uses images captured by a small flatbed scanner pressed onto the skin," says Dr Valloton. "The software can even detect hairs that people find hard to see and it's not confused by variations in background skin colour or texture."

Hair today, gone tomorrow

If you're wondering exactly why you would want to count hairs, ask an (unnamed) UK personal care company, which is working with CSIRO to find an objective test for their intimate hair removal products.

"You can compare the results with earlier images to see if hair is growing quickly or slowly or has been properly removed by, say, a depilatory cream," according to Dr Valloton, who usually sports a business-like short, back and sides.

In the language of image analysis, a hair is called a 'linear feature'. There are many ways of detecting linear features but the Australian software uses algorithms that exploit special characteristics of hairs, like their relative straightness.

The number of unemployed people in Australia rose by 21,700 in September, although the country's Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations does not specifically track redundancies in the hair enumeration industry.

Mark Harris is Senior Research Director at Gartner.