How age-progression software helps find missing kids

If you happen to be driving in St. Joseph, Minn., this weekend, look up at the billboards to see a picture of Jacob Wetterling. An image created last year shows how Wetterling, who went missing 25 years ago at age 11, might look today at age 36.

The new billboards are the latest attempt by law enforcement officials to engage the public in finding Wetterling, who was abducted by a masked gunman on a country road in 1989. His first age-progressed image was released in 1998, then in 2007, and again in 2013.

Age-progression images are a critical tool in helping identify missing children after an abduction or missing person’s report, says Steve Loftin, the Supervisor for National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in the Forensic Imaging Unit, based in Alexandria, Virginia.

Loftin told their Forensic Imaging Specialists, as they are known, have used new features in Adobe Photoshop for color-matching and light-matching. Using reference photos from siblings, parents, and other relatives, the specialists can create realistic age-progressed images that show the correct bone structure, skin tones, and even hair styles.

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” explained Loftin, who says the reference images for the parents and siblings are helpful for constructing the age progressions. The images are printed in circulars sent to 80 million Americans each week and posted at Wal-Mart stores.

Today, in our photo-obsessed culture -- with kids and teenagers taking everything from Instagram selfies to family group shots posted to Facebook -- the forensic artists have a wider array of imagery available to create the age progression photos. Loftin says the more imagery they have the better the photos will look. He says the forensic team developed the latest age-progressed photo of Wettering using photos of his father and his brother, who is now 35.

Loftin says 1,300 long-term missing children have been found since the agency started using Photoshop to create the images, although it’s difficult to say whether images led specifically to finding the child. The agency started creating age progression images in 1989 using proprietary software. While the center currently uses Adobe Photoshop, there are two new options available that could help create even more realistic age-progressed images.

One is being developed at the University of Washington by researchers Ira Kemelmacher, Supasorn Suwajanakorn, and Steve Seitz. A software program automatically renders several age-progressed images based on the shape and texture of the child’s face. The resulting image can be aged anywhere from 1 year to 80 years and can use thousands of reference images. The tool could speed up the process of creating age progression images. Kemelmacher told that she is planning to release a preliminary version of the tool soon.

A second tool is already in the hands of law enforcement officials. AprilAge, a company based in Toronto, normally creates age progressions to show the effects of obesity or smoking. However, agencies also use the software in forensic work at a crime-scene and could be used to help find missing children. The main benefit to using the tool is that the images are based on actual people at specific ages from 7 to 70 and do not use an artist render or morphed image.

“Our software uses our proprietary database of thousands of real people’s 3D head scans to apply the aging characteristics to a photo,” says Alexandra Brown, the CEO of AprilAge.

Having these tools, a wealth of family images, and the forensics artists creating the age progressed images could help find more missing children. If you see a billboard, get a flyer in the mail, or shop at Wal-Mart,  just make sure you take a close look.