SALT LAKE CITY — Three years ago John Polimeno and his wife were sitting in a Bay Area Starbucks when he got his big idea.
"We saw a lost dog poster and it brought back memories of this black lab we lost, Harley," he said. "Being in the car with our kids crying, putting up posters, knocking on doors. And I thought, there must be a better way."
He thought about facial recognition -- high-tech biometrics used by the FBI and Homeland Security -- for dogs.
"Well, if you can do facial recognition for people, why can't you do it for dogs?" he said.
Polimeno had just sold his construction company and was looking for the next chapter in his life. This was it.
He asked facial recognition experts around the world to help him turn the idea into an app. They all declined.
Then he approached software engineers Steve Callahan and John Schreiner at the University of Utah's Software Development Center.
"We told him he was crazy," Callahan said. "It's a really hard problem."
If you can do facial recognition for people, why can't you do it for dogs?
"We had never heard of anybody doing facial recognition for dogs before," Schreiner said.
The two, who'd worked with serious science like microscopy, super-resolution imaging and X-ray backscatter imaging, agreed to take the project on.
Using an algorithm that matches dog faces based on distinguishing characteristics -- the size of the eyes, color, patterns -- they developed the software engine that drives an app called Finding Rover. It launched a month and a half ago.
Callahan said it has about a 96 percent accuracy rate at matching pets.
John Polimeno is now touring the country in a big RV plastered with pictures of rescue dogs, his granddaughter and his mother-in-law to generate publicity and explain the app.
It works like this: Using a smartphone or tablet you take a head shot of your dog. If it runs away, you report it missing. Anyone who finds a stray can, likewise, take a photo with the app. Finding Rover searches the database for your missing dog.
Eventually, Polimeno said, Finding Rover will include photos of strays at animal shelters and he said it will eventually help find cats.
The app is available for the iPhone and iPad. Android and web versions are in development.