Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Complementary technologies compete

Over the past few years, advances in imaging technology have led to the development of some astonishing products in the medical field. Perhaps none has proved more useful at diagnosing brain activity as functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI.

But the fMRI technology does have its drawbacks. While it has a good spatial resolution of a few millimeters, it suffers from a poor temporal resolution of a few seconds.

In contrast, electroencephalography (EEG) -- a complementary technique that records the electrical signals from the coordinated activity of large numbers of nerve cells through electrodes attached to the scalp -- has the opposite problem.

While it has the advantage of being able to detect rapid changes in neural activity with millisecond temporal resolution, it suffers from a poor ability to pinpoint the location of brain activity. In other words, it has poor spatial resolution.

Hence the usefulness of EEG is limited, not just because its spatial resolution is comparatively poor, but also due to the fact that it can also be insensitive because of the many signals from the brain that are mixed together. It does, however, have the advantage of being portable and comparatively cheap, and therefore is appropriate for a clinical setting, unlike an MRI scanner that is large and comparatively expensive.

Fortunately, in research labs at Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre (CUBRIC), it is now possible to perform EEG and fMRI simultaneously, and this fact may lead to the birth of a new diagnostic system thanks to the marriage of both the technologies.

That's right. At Cardiff University, a team led by professor Richard Wise proposes to improve the spatial resolution of EEG by using EEG and fMRI measurements acquired simultaneously on healthy volunteers to discover correlations between the EEG and fMRI data from which they will produce a statistical model.

Subtle features of the EEG signal, which are not normally easily identified but which are associated with the spatial location of the source of neural activity, will be highlighted by their association with the fMRI data, which is good at pinpointing locations in space.

Having established the relationship between the EEG and fMRI data in mathematical terms, EEG data alone will then be used to simulate fMRI scans. These simulated fMRI scans might then one day be used by clinicians as a new means to diagnose brain activity -- minimizing the requirement for an fMRI scan to be carried out on a patient.

It's an interesting idea, for sure, and one that holds the possibility of seeing an advanced medical imaging technology partly doing itself out of a job!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Optical 3-D dental scanner wins VISION 2011 prize

Anyone who has been to the dentist can testify to the fact that undergoing root canal and crown therapy or being measured up for dentures isn't the most pleasant of experiences.

So I was particularly pleased to see that a dental scanner that promises to take the misery out of such a process has won this year's EUR5000 top prize at the VISION 2011 trade fair in Stuttgart.

Today, creating a model of the mouth is a fairly primitive procedure. Teeth are cast using an impression compound that is placed in the mouth of a patient and left to set. A resulting plaster model of the teeth is then prepared from the impression, after which the model is digitized using a stationary scanner. In a final step, dentures can be produced from the model with the aid of a CAD/CAM system.

But all of that is set to change thanks to the new system developed by the prize-winning engineers at the Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT), which will obviate the need for dentists to make dental impressions of the mouth, making the entire process less unpleasant and time-consuming.

The AIT system itself is based on a small 3-D scanner that is placed inside the mouth. The scanner illuminates the mouth with light after which two cameras capture images in real time. A data file -- which previously had to be created in the numerous stages described earlier -- is then created and transmitted to a PC over a USB port where the 3-D model can be visualized (see video).

According to the AIT researchers, a complete jaw arch can be measured in 3 to 5 minutes, and the accuracy of the completed model is to within 20 microns.

The stereo method for measuring the location of the teeth and the design of the scanner have been patented jointly by Klagenfurt am Worthersee-based startup a.tron3d and AIT. But those outside the dental industry can license the stereo software on an individual basis -- as PC software, as a program library for Windows and Linux, or as firmware for embedded devices such as smart cameras.

For its part, a.tron3d -- which holds the exclusive rights for the dental industry -- plans to release the scanner, called the Bluescan-I, by March 2012.

Sadly, that'll not be of too much use to me since I have already had much dental treatment on my teeth using the older, more primitive measurement method. But the good news is that it will certainly help new patients who will no longer have to experience almost choking when their mouths are full of that rather horrid tasting impression compound.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Smart cards and 3-D imaging

Traveling to Europe can be an exhilarating experience. The chance to make contact with the Old World and its customs can be both delightful and enchanting. But it can also be frustrating, especially for visitors from the United States.

My visit to VISION 2011 in Stuttgart was no exception. Stopping off to catch up with my brother in the UK after the show, I discovered that the many (petrol) gas stations in the country were unable to accept my credit cards at the pump due to the fact that they had not been enabled with a so-called "chip and PIN."

That's right. In the UK, at least, it's common for credit and debit cards to come equipped with an embedded microprocessor which is interrogated by any number of automated terminals to provide goods and services once the user has entered a Personal Identification Number (PIN) that is uniquely associated with the card.

As frustrated as I was by the inability of the gas pumps to accept my chip-less card, my brother Dave saw the beasts as just a small step toward a completely automated future -- one in which vision systems could play an important role.

You see, having spent the past three days trawling around the VISION 2011 show, he had come across many companies that were developing 3-D vision systems. And while some of these were to be used in rather specific bin-picking applications or in capturing images of traffic on German highways, others could be used to capture images of the human body.

Capturing such images, Dave said, could create an enormous market far bigger than the field of machine vision -- especially if such 3-D images of the body could then be made small enough that they could be downloaded onto the memory of a credit-card-sized device.

Imagine, he inferred, if a complete image of an individual's body were to be encapsulated in such a way. Gone would be the need to wander around a store to search for an item of clothing that fits. Upon entering the store, a computer system would simply interrogate a user's card to identify an individual by his size and highlight where appropriate clothes could be found.

Medical professionals could benefit too. Upon entering a doctor's surgery, the current image of an individual's body could be immediately compared to a past image contained on the individual's credit card, providing doctors with an instant indication of any dramatic charges to body size that might indicate any medical problems.

Dave believes that there's enormous potential for such technology. But as much as he believes that such devices might make our lives so much easier in the future, I only wish I had one of those existing European chip and PIN cards today so that I might have been able to top up the tank at the gas station.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A booming business?

If you watch the daily news on television, you might be forgiven for thinking that Europe is in a complete financial and economic mess. But you wouldn't think so if you attended last week's VISION Show 2011. For there, a record number of companies and attendees filled the halls of the Messe Stuttgart, proving that despite the problems that might face the folks in the Eurozone, the vision industry still appears to be booming.

That's right. There's no doubt about it. This year's VISION 2011 show in Stuttgart, Germany was an unparalleled success. More than 350 exhibitors attended the show, an increase of 8.4% on the number that were there last year. And from the number of interested parties that were walking the aisles of the show, I'd say that interest in the industry is as high as it has ever been.

But what is really going on in the market? Is it booming or stagnant? To find out, I attended the annual networking reception held in the halls of the show, where Gregory Hollows from the Automated Imaging Association (AIA, United States) was joined by Sung-ho Huh from the Korean Machine Vision Association (KMVA) and Isabel Yang from the China Machine Vision Union (CMVU) to present the state of the market in their various countries.

Out from the crisis of 2009 which saw the vision systems market down 20%, Gregory Hollows -- the vice-chair of the AIA board of directors -- said that the vision systems market in the US had rallied, experiencing 4% growth this year. Not bad news on the US front, then.

Korea's Sung-ho Huh had pretty much the same to say. According to him, the Korean market is in pretty good shape, too, and had experienced growth of 5% this year. Of course, as one might expect, the picture from China was even rosier, with Isabel Yang telling us that the vision system market in China had experienced a growth rate of around 10%.

After the reception, of course, came the analysis. A few folks that I spoke to were somewhat worried about prospects for the market next year. While they had a reasonable 2011, they weren't expecting things to stay as positive in 2012. Others were interested to know how they might enter the more lucrative Asian marketplace, which they saw as a prime opportunity worth exploiting. And there were a few, I must admit, that didn't believe that the Chinese economy was quite as rosy as it was painted, citing a number of enormous factory openings there that had been put on hold due to weak demand in the West.

Interpreting market figures from any of the above organizations, no matter how carefully they are researched, might never provide a true indication of how vibrant the vision systems marketplace is. Perhaps the only true market indicator could be found by counting the number of companies and attendees at VISION 2011 itself. If that's anything to go by, I'd say that the vision business is still in pretty good shape!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Mistaken identity

Next week marks the start of one of the biggest event in Vision Systems Design's calendar -- the VISION 2011 show in Stuttgart Germany.

Accompanying me to the show this year will be Susan Smith, our publisher; Judy Leger, our national sales manager; and the latest addition to our editorial team, Dave Wilson.

As many of you may know, Dave joined the magazine just last month to increase our presence in the important European market. But what some of you may not know that Dave is also my identical twin brother, a fact I thought I'd make perfectly clear before the show begins, in order to diminish the confusion that will inevitably arise as a case of mistaken identity on the show floor.

You see, although numerous vision system algorithms have been developed over the years to differentiate between products of a similar nature, I'm sorry to say that most human beings' visual systems -- even those in the machine vision industry -- seem to be incapable of differentiating between the two of us, despite the fact that I clearly inherited all the brains and good looks.

For that reason, I have programmed my brother's central processing unit to respond to the greeting "Hi, Andy" whenever he hears it, after which he will instigate a verbal subroutine, which will explain that he is simply a poor imitation of the real thing.

However, if you do run into the man instead of me, you will find that he is equally as willing to learn what new technologies are being discussed at the show.

He would be especially delighted to discuss any applications of machine vision related to the use of smart cameras and hyperspectral imaging. Please be sure to bend the man's ear if you see him!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Win $50,000 courtesy of the US Government!

Today's troops often confiscate remnants of destroyed documents from war zones, but reconstructing entire documents from them is a daunting task.

To discover if they can unearth a more effective means to do just that, the folks at DARPA have come up with a challenge that they hope will encourage individuals to develop a more automated solution.

That's right. The defense organization is hoping that by offering a whopping $50,000 in prize money, entrants to its so-called "Shredder Challenge" will generate some ideas that it might be able to make use of.

The Challenge itself consists of solving five individual puzzles embedded in the content of documents that have all been shredded by different means. To participate in the challenge, participants must download the images of the shredded documents from the challenge web site, reconstruct the documents, solve the puzzles, and submit the correct answers before Dec. 4, 2011.

Points will be awarded to those who provide the correct answers to the mandatory questions associated with each puzzle. $1,000 will be awarded for each point scored up to $50,000 for a perfect score. DARPA will then award one cash prize of up to $50,000 to the participant who scored the highest total number of points by the deadline.

Registration is open to all eligible parties at, which provides detailed rules and images of the shredded documents for the five problems.

Clearly, this is an application that would benefit from the expert knowledge of those in the image processing field who might be able to develop -- or deploy -- a set of vision-based algorithms to reconstruct the documents and hence solve the puzzles.

Interestingly enough, of course, several individuals contributing to the discussion forums on the Shredder Challenge web site are taking exactly that approach...