A flood of interest from image-conscious Canadians has caused performance problems for a Toronto-based online service that simulates the effects of plastic surgery.

Modiface.com has posted a notice on its home page that a recent segment about its technology on local news channel City TV has boosted traffic to close to two million hits a day. Modiface allows users to upload photos of themselves and then choose what they would like to change about themselves. They can also choose the features of celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Angelina Jolie, portraits of whom are included on the site.

“We had close to five million hits in 24 hours. It crashed our servers,” said Parham Aarabi, a professor at the University of Toronto’s computer engineering department who led the development of Modiface.com. “U of T has significant bandwidth but nowhere what we would need to handle that.”

Modiface.com was born out of research Aarabi has been conducting for about 10 years in facial recognition. Some of his other projects have included creating algorithms to detect the movement of lips to deal with noise cancellation in video files. About two years ago, however, one of his former students mentioned that his father, a plastic surgeon, identified how some of the technology at the U of T lab could be applied to his practice.

The team at U of T trained the Modiface system on close to 10,000 photos to understand where various features like noses and ears would be located on a human face. Facial recognition software used for security purposes often has a success rate of between 35 and 50 per cent, Arrabi added, but Modiface’s users will have higher expectations than that.

Modiface does not store the photos users uploads. They are held in cache memory and expire after the user session is complete. The intent is not necessarily to install the software in a plastic surgeon’s office, he said, but to offer it as a Web 2.0 service for users to experiment before they get serious about consulting with one. The revenue model could come from ads from plastic surgeons featured on the Web site, he said.

“Right now it’s more of a playful thing,” he said. “We’re going to listen to user comments and have them tell us what they like and don’t like, improving efficiency and at some point bringing to market in some commercial way.”

Dr. Lorne Tarshis, who leads the Toronto-based Institute of Comestic Surgery, said practitioners already use a similar software program called Mirror Image to give patients a glimpse of what they might look like following a procedure.

“The pros are it’s a forum for discussion. The negatives are it’s a computer (simulation) – one has to be clear that it’s a demonstration,” he said. “Everybody’s bodies heal differently, so you have to make sure the patient understands this is an approximation.”

Due to lawsuits in the United States, some software is now coming with disclaimers, Tarshis added.

Aarabi said Modiface has also helped advance other areas of facial recognition at U of T by teaching the system to deal with a wider variety of image shapes, sizes and resolutions.

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