Picons Frequently Asked Questions

Steve Kinzler <steve@kinzler.com>
27 Nov 2005

  1. What are picons?
  2. Where can I get the picons databases and how are they licensed?
  3. What is the structure of the picons databases?
  4. What are the constraints on individual picons?
  5. How are picons looked up in the databases?
  6. What software and services are available that use picons?
  7. What software is available to help create picons?
  8. How can I submit picons to the databases?
  9. Is there a mailing list about picons?
  10. Who has contributed to picons?

1. What are picons?

"picons" is short for "personal icons". They're small, constrained images used to represent users and domains on the net, organized into databases so that the appropriate image for a given e-mail address can be found. Besides users and domains, there are picons databases for Usenet newsgroups and weather forecasts. The picons are in either or both monochrome XBM and color XPM formats, plus a GIF format.

These databases have been compiled in hopes of helping make cyberspace a more personable place. With them, software and services can be developed to identify persons on the net by face (or, at least, by institution logo) instead of by a cryptic e-mail address. Although this software is still more potential than actual, much already exists (see 6.). The picons databases themselves, of course, are only a first step toward this goal.

The picons databases have been built from the submissions of hundreds of contributors across the net, and, as such, their accuracy and appropriateness has not been extensively verified. Contributions and corrections are welcome and encouraged (see 8.).

The picons databases that currently are available are:

The picons databases have previously been referred to as "faces" collections or databases, because they were originally compiled for use with the "faces" software. Since they're now used for more than this and include more than actual face images, they're referred to as the picons databases to make the distinction and to avoid overloading the term "faces".

2. Where can I get the picons databases and how are they licensed?

The picons databases are available via WWW in the Picons Archive at <URL:http://kinzler.com/picons/ftp/>. This archive also includes sources for picons application scripts and icon utilities and a set of demo window dumps of some picons applications. An interactive random picons sampler and a picons database search facility are also available via WWW here.

The databases are also mirrored in the UUNET archives in ftp.uu.net:/published/usenix/faces/bundled/picons/, where they're available via FTP or UUCP.

The databases are updated in these archives each day they change so the most current version is always available. Since many of the databases are constantly growing, you may want to update your local copy of them periodically.

The databases are also available as packages for Debian GNU/Linux at ftp://sunsite.unc.edu/pub/Linux/distributions/debian/, though these are updated much less frequently.

Most of the databases have a license that places some conditions on their use and distribution. Generally, this is just to ensure that the volunteer efforts put into the databases are recognized and protected. Otherwise, they're essentially freely usable, but see the LICENSE section of the README file in the top directory of each database for details.

3. What is the structure of the picons databases?

Each database is structured as a directory tree. Each directory deeper into a database more specifically references a picon. The databases for users and domains are organized by reversed Internet domainname components followed by the username. For example, my XPM picon is located in the "users" database under my most general e-mail address, kinzler@indiana.edu, in the file
The picon files themselves are always named face.xbm, face.xpm or face.gif. The face.gif file will be the same image as the face.xpm file if it exists, otherwise as the face.xbm file. If the picon applies to the domain as a whole and no user in particular, the username "unknown" is used. These picons are typically in the "domains" or "unknown" databases, for example
If the picon applies to a specific user in any domain (usually standard system accounts), the domain "MISC" is used. These picons are typically in the "misc" or "unknown" databases, for example
Note that, with the exception of the special MISC domain, all parts of the path are in lower-case.

The "news" database is organized by Usenet newsgroup name components with an "unknown" username. For example, the XPM picon for rec.humor.oracle is in


4. What are the constraints on individual picons?

Each final directory in a database may contain one or both of a face.xbm file and a face.xpm file, plus a face.gif file. Picons in all formats are constrained to be 48 by 48 pixels in size. (An exception is the weather database which has picons 64 by 64 pixels). Furthermore, XPM picons are in the version 3 format of XPM and must use only colors in one of two limited subsets of common colors. This restriction minimizes the competition for colormap space for many users and usually allows applications displaying picons to do so with the standard colormap. GIF picons are equivalent to their XPM counterparts with the XPM/XBM "none" color converted to "grey75" (rgb:BF/BF/BF) and marked as transparent.

The first color set is that used in the AIcons collection, version 1.6. See <URL:http://www.cit.gu.edu.au/~anthony/icons/docs/> for more about the history and rationale of this color set. The colors in the set are (by hexadecimal RGB triplets and X11 color names)

    00 00 00 black              EE 82 EE violet
    2F 4F 4F dark slate grey    FF 00 FF magenta
    70 80 90 slate grey         A0 20 F0 purple
    BE BE BE grey               00 FF FF cyan
    DC DC DC gainsboro          A0 52 2D sienna
    FF FF FF white              CD 85 3F peru
    00 00 80 navy               FF A5 00 orange
    00 00 FF blue               FF D7 00 gold
    1E 90 FF dodger blue        FF FF 00 yellow
    87 CE EB sky blue           D2 B4 8C tan
    E6 E6 FA lavender           F5 DE B3 wheat
    2E 8B 57 sea green          FF FA CD lemon chiffon
    32 CD 32 lime green         B2 22 22 firebrick
    00 FF 00 green              FF 00 00 red
    98 FB 98 pale green         FF 63 47 tomato
[Colors Image]
The second color set is a greyscale set for use with photographic-type icons when the first color set isn't satisfactory. Its colors by hexadecimal RGB triplets and X11 color names are
    00 00 00 black              87 87 87 grey53
    12 12 12 grey7              99 99 99 grey60
    21 21 21 grey13             AB AB AB grey67
    33 33 33 grey20             BA BA BA grey73
    45 45 45 grey27             CC CC CC grey80
    54 54 54 grey33             DE DE DE grey87
    66 66 66 grey40             ED ED ED grey93
    78 78 78 grey47             FF FF FF white
[Greys Image]
The transparent or "none" color can be used with both color sets. In fact, its use is encouraged as the background color.

5. How are picons looked up in the databases?

With most applications, databases are searched sequentially according to an order specified by a search path. The definition of this path will vary from application to application depending on the nature of the application and the databases available and desired.

The recommended order of the picons databases for a search path for Internet e-mail addresses is:

  1. your personal database, if any
  2. your local site database, if any
  3. users
  4. usenix
  5. misc (MISC default picons)
  6. domains
  7. unknown ("smoking spy" catch-all default picons)
Any of these databases are optional, of course, and may be excluded for efficiency or because of lack of usefulness. As special purpose databases, the news and weather databases are usually used alone or with just personal and local additions.

Each database is searched for a matching picon from most specific to least specific. The search typically stops with the first match. Each database is searched entirely before continuing with the next one. For example, a lookup for the picon for kinzler@cs.indiana.edu would proceed with this sequence of checks occuring within each database in the search path. The picon used would be in the first of these directories containing a suitable one:

  1. edu/indiana/cs/kinzler
  2. edu/indiana/kinzler
  3. edu/kinzler
  4. MISC/kinzler
  5. edu/indiana/cs/unknown
  6. edu/indiana/unknown
  7. edu/unknown
  8. MISC/unknown

6. What software and services are available that use picons?

There's a number of programs available that use picons to monitor incoming e-mail or represent an e-mail message. Applications are also available to monitor print queues, unread news, system mail queues, weather forecasts, given addresses and newsgroups, and so on.

All such software can be found in the Faces Archive available via WWW at <URL:http://kinzler.com/ftp/faces/>.

The Faces Archive is also mirrored in the UUNET archives in ftp.uu.net:/published/usenix/faces/bundled/, where they're available via FTP or UUCP.

The Picons Search engine at <URL:http://kinzler.com/picons/search.html> searches the picons databases for requested picon sets and displays the found picons. As such, it can serve as an icon lookup service for Internet users and domains and Usenet newsgroups.

The Picons Card Game at <URL:http://kinzler.com/cardgame> lets you play a card game in JavaScript with any number of players, any number of cards, and any set of Web images, including many pre-defined subsets of picons to randomly select from. It's a fun and challenging game for all ages.

The Picons Sonification page at <URL:http://kinzler.com/picons/javoice/> uses the vOICe Java applet to compute and play auditory representations of images, including GIF picons, intended as a step towards a vision substitution device for the blind.

The WWW-Finger Gateway with Faces at <URL:http://www.cs.indiana.edu/finger/gateway> displays picon sequences for the users and hosts it fingers.

Anthony's Icon Library (AIcons) at <URL:http://www.sct.gu.edu.au/~anthony/icons/> includes some picons among its various icon sections, which are organized for programming, application and Web usage. In particular, the library highlights the country flag domain picons and the Olympic event logo picons.

The Indiana University Computer Science Personnel Directory at <URL:http://www.cs.indiana.edu/people/> uses picons of users in indices of its personnel information pages.

The Gmane mailing list archive at <URL:http://www.gmane.org/> displays picons with the messages displayed on its website.

7. What software is available to help create picons?

There's a cornucopia of software available on all computing platforms for creating and manipulating images which can be useful towards creating picons. Images can be created by hand or scanned in with a scanner. Also, one can scrounge around existing image collections or browse the World-Wide Web for images that can be converted and scaled to a picon.

The MailFaces documentation at <URL:http://members.cruzio.com/~jthomas/mailfaces/picons.html> provides advice on creating picons under Windows 95 and OS/2 environments. If you can put your image on the Web, then you can use the PIconCreate service at <URL:http://members.cruzio.com/~jthomas/mailfaces/picons.html#piconcreate> or <URL:http://kinzler.com/cgi/piconcreate.cgi> to process and submit it as a picon.

Below are some software packages I commonly use for creating picons under a Unix/X11 environment. The Iconolog site at <URL:http://www.ozemail.com.au/~afactor/tools/iconTools.html> references many icon tools for other environments.

XPM, koala.inria.fr:/pub/xpm/
A library needed by most other software with XPM support.
A very broad suite of image filters and tools, particularly useful for format conversions.
picons bits, <URL:http://kinzler.com/ftp/faces/picons/>
Special supplements to NetPBM, xbmbrowser and GIMP for picons.
xbmbrowser, ftp.x.org:/contrib/utilities/
Great for viewing and managing picons databases and working on sets of picons.
AIcons support environment, ftp.cs.indiana.edu:/pub/AIcons/
This greatly extends xbmbrowser and other software listed here as picons support tools.
bitmap, X11 archives
A standard X11 tool for editting XBM bitmaps; the X11R5 and later versions are recommended.
pixmap, avahi.inria.fr:/pub/pixmap/
An X11 tool for editting XPM pixmaps.
xv, ftp.cis.upenn.edu:/pub/xv/
A powerful image processing and conversion tool; shareware versions 3 and later support XPM.
xpaint, <URL:http://www.danbbs.dk/~torsten/xpaint/>
A paint program for X11.
xgrabsc/xgrab, ftp.x.org:/contrib/applications/
Handy tools for grabbing an image from your display.
xfontsel, X11 archives
A standard X11 tool for displaying a text string in various fonts.
xmag, X11 archives
A standard X11 tool for magnifying a portion of your display.

8. How can I submit picons to the databases?

If you use the PIconCreate service at <URL:http://members.cruzio.com/~jthomas/mailfaces/picons.html#piconcreate> or <URL:http://kinzler.com/cgi/piconcreate.cgi> to process your Web image into a picon, then you can submit it to the databases with the service, too. Otherwise, you can use e-mail to submit your picons. Large sets of picons can be packaged and submitted with prior arrangement with <picons-admin@kinzler.com>. For individual picons or small sets of picons, it's preferable to submit them (or their URLs) via e-mail.

To submit a new or revised picon to a database, mail its XBM, XPM or ASCII PNM (ASCII PBM, ASCII PGM or ASCII PPM) file to one of these addresses

as appropriate. Alternately, you may mail in, alone in the body of the message, a URL referencing the image file.

In any case, the subject line should contain only the e-mail address (in user@dom.ain format) the users picon is for (eg, "kinzler@indiana.edu"), the domain address or hierarchy the domains picon is for (eg, "sei.cmu.edu" or "cmu.edu"), or the newsgroup or newsgroup hierarchy the news picon is for (eg, "comp.unix.shell" or "comp"). Please submit each picon in a separate mailing.

For picons contributed to the users database, the domain specified in the subject should be the most general at which the given username is uniquely applicable, even if such a domain isn't valid as a mailing address. For example, if "kinzler" is the same user in every subdomain of "indiana.edu", his picon would be submitted as "kinzler@indiana.edu" even if that's not a valid mailing address.

The body of mailed files should contain only the picon, preferably already within the standard picons constraints (see 4.) and preferably as an XBM, XPM or ASCII PNM picon unpackaged in plain text. A GIF version of a picon need not be mailed in if its corresponding XPM or ASCII PNM version is submitted. But, if you do mail in a GIF, or other non-ASCII format image, you'll need to package it somehow for mail transfer. You may mail in images (or URLs for images) with other sizes, formats and color sets, but they may not be able to be successfully processed and added to the databases.

See 7. for pointers to software and advice to aid in creating picons. Any extra comments about the submitted picons can be mailed separately to <picons-admin@kinzler.com>.

After being processed, submissions are deleted from the picons incoming directory <URL:http://kinzler.com/ftp/faces/picons/incoming/>. They will then appear in the distributed databases within the next 24 hours.

9. Is there a mailing list about picons?

A mailing list is available for announcements and discussion related to the faces and xfaces software and the picons databases. See 6. about accessing the Faces Archives for these, as well as archives of the mailing list.

Mail sent to faces@kinzler.com is mailed to everyone on the mailing list. Mail faces-request@kinzler.com with your requests to subscribe to or unsubsribe from the mailing list.


10. Who has contributed to picons?

Steve Kinzler <steve@kinzler.com> is the creator and primary developer of the picons databases, application scripts, and online services. He began around 1990 after installing faces and finding its potential limited by the lack of a substantial collection of domain icons. He's created or adapted a good share of the picons and reviewed, installed and tweaked most all the rest.

Daniel Glazman <Daniel.Glazman@der.edf.fr>, Iain Sinclair <axolotl@socs.uts.edu.au>, Dirk Craeynest <Dirk.Craeynest@cs.kuleuven.ac.be>, Dougal Scott <dwagon@aaii.oz.au>, Yuval Kfir <ykfir@geocities.com>, Johan Fredriksson <e93_jof@e.kth.se> and Juhapekka Tolvanen <juhtolv@st.jyu.fi> have contributed a substantial number of picons themselves and some of the picons have been adapted from Jeff Poskanzer's <jef@netcom.com> bitmap collection. Rich Burridge <Richard.Burridge@eng.sun.com> compiled early versions of a combined users and misc database. Hundreds of others around the net have contributed some number of picons to the databases. Under the Usenix FaceSaver project, Dave Yost, Lou Katz, Barb Dijker <barb.dijker@labyrinth.com> and David C Lawrence <tale@uunet.uu.net> have compiled and made available thousands of face images of Usenix conference attendees which form the basis for the usenix picons database.

John Thomas <jthomas@cruzio.com> developed the PIconCreate service for the processing and submission of Web images as picons. Hakan Ardo <hakan@debian.org> prepares Debian package versions of the picons databases. Daniel V Klein <dvk@lonewolf.com> included the Picons and Faces Archives on the 1997 Usenix Technical Conference CD-ROM.

These fine folks are acknowledged for their development work with applications which use picons: Rich Burridge <Richard.Burridge@eng.sun.com> (faces), Chris Liebman <liebman@zod.clark.net> (xfaces), John Thomas <jthomas@cruzio.com> (MailFaces), Brian Redman (MailGlance), Daniel Glazman <Daniel.Glazman@der.edf.fr> (MEUF), Brent Welch <welch@acm.org> and John LoVerso <loverso@osf.org> (exmh), Ido Hardonag <ido@netmanage.co.il> (Chameleon), Marc VanHeyningen <mvanheyn@cs.indiana.edu> (WWW-Finger Gateway with Faces), James Ashton <James.Ashton@anu.edu.au> (compface), Rob Kooper <kooper@cc.gatech.edu> (libfaces), Simon Richter <richtesi@fs.tum.de> (xfacedb), and Axel Belinfante <Axel.Belinfante@cs.utwente.nl> (ircfaces). faces, the software which started it all, was itself inspired by seminal work by Rob Pike <rob@bell-labs.com> and Dave Presotto <presotto@plan9.att.com> with their vismon program for Bell Labs Version 8 Unix described in Face the Nation ( *).

And these folks are acknowledged for developing software which has been especially important in the creation of the picons databases: Davor Matic (bitmap), Lionel Mallet (pixmap), Anthony Thyssens <anthony@cit.gu.edu.au> and Ashley Roll <ash@cit.gu.edu.au> (AIcons & xbmbrowser), and Jeff Poskanzer <jef@netcom.com> and the NetPBM developers (PBMPlus/NetPBM).

Plus others I'm sure I've neglected to mention.

<steve@kinzler.com>, a Kinzler.com offering
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