Monday, January 30, 2012

Taking the temperature of elephants

Many of our readers will be familiar with the principle of operation of thermal imaging (infrared) cameras and how they can be used in a variety of applications ranging from determining the thermal loss of buildings, detecting specific gases, or monitoring production processes.

But like me, most people might be surprised to hear that a group of researchers from the University of Guelph (Ontario, Canada) are now using such cameras to study the thermoregulation of animals such as elephants.

That's right. As a member in the Department of Animal and Poultry Science (APS), Esther Finegan and her students have filmed elephants in Busch Gardens zoological park in Florida with a thermal imaging camera to see how and when they store and radiate heat. She and her students are now pioneering similar thermoregulation studies at the Toronto Zoo.

While the use of thermal imaging will undoubtedly prove to be an invaluable tool that will enable zookeepers and landscape architects to better design the animals' surroundings to keep them happy and healthy, this isn't the only means by which researchers have measured the temperature of such beasts.

Last year, for example, scientists at the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology (FIWI) at the University of Veterinary Medicine (Vienna, Austria) showed that Asian elephants respond to high daytime temperatures by significantly lowering their body temperature during the cooler night hours. By doing so they create a thermal reserve that allows them to store heat and so prevent heat stress as temperatures rise during the day.

To reach that conclusion, they fed small telemeters to a group of captive elephants in Thailand and a group at the Munich Zoo Hellabrunn to monitor temperatures in the animals' gastrointestinal tract. The telemetry system, which permits the continuous recording of temperature, had previously been developed at the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology.

Statistical analysis of the data confirmed that while the overall mean body temperature was similar in both the Thai and the German elephants, fluctuations in body temperature were on average twice as large in the Thai animals as in the German ones. The Thai animals had both a higher daily peak temperature and a lower minimum temperature, which the scientists related to the higher mean ambient temperatures in Thailand.

In fact, the body temperature of the Thai elephants dropped at night to well below the normal average, meaning that Thai elephants start the day with a much larger thermal reserve than their German counterparts.

It just goes to show that, just as there's more than one way to skin a cat, there is also more than one way to take the temperature of an elephant. But if I were an elephant, I'd probably prefer the noninvasive image-processing approach rather than ingesting a telemetry system.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Rescue teams aided by image capture and transmission...and dogs

Getting a person into an inhospitable location such as a disaster zone, or an area of conflict, isn't always easy. Dogs, however, don't have the same sorts of issues and can travel places where an individual might have difficulty.

So why not equip them with cameras and microphones, so their handlers can see exactly what they're up to and whether they may have spotted anyone in distress?

Indeed, that high-tech vision of the rescue dog of the future was exactly what engineers at Wood & Douglas (Tadley, Hampshire, UK) had in mind when they developed the Portable All-terrain Wireless System (PAWS) -- a system that is, naturally enough, designed to be worn by search and rescue dogs.

Despite looking like a Hollywood sci-fi creation, with its head-mounted video camera and microphones, PAWS lets a rescue dog search without any discomfort, beaming video images back to its handler.

With a camera that supports low light and infrared night-vision options, the dog-mounted video system can be used for search and rescue, supporting military operations, or even explosives and drug detection.

Alan Wood, managing director of Wood & Douglas, said that while it may look unusual or raise a smile at first sight, the capability to see a dog's point of view makes a hazardous job safer for both handler and dog and helps save lives. The dogs are not put off by the technology they carry and can give their handler a view of areas that they are unable to get to themselves.

The company says that PAWS can be adapted to be worn by different dogs, delivering a video feed in real time to either a desktop or to a wearable receiver with a hands-free or head-mounted monitor.

Despite the fact that the system has been designed to be worn by a dog, I can't help but think that the folks at Wood & Douglas might well have created a product here that is far from being a dog itself.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The man with no tan

Not wanting to selfishly indulge in all of the great travel and business opportunities that come with the job of being the Editor of Vision Systems Design magazine, I have decided to dispatch our Senior Editor Dave Wilson off to one of the most prestigious of all of the events in the Vision Systems Design calendar.

That's right. This week, he will be attending the 20th Annual Automated Imaging Association (AIA) Business Conference, which is being held at the Orlando World Center Marriott from January 18-20.

While it all might sound like a bit of a holiday for our Senior Editor -- who is more accustomed to living under the slate gray Victorian skies of rainy England -- I can assure you that it's not.

Indeed, to ensure that he does not spend his days lounging by one swimming pool or another, or even visiting resorts populated with mice featuring large ears, I have specifically asked him to cover a number of key industry events while he is in Florida.

On Wednesday, for example, he'll be meeting up with the good folks at PPT for an entire day's session to learn a lot more about how their company's third-party integrators have developed numerous vision-based solutions for the industrial marketplace.

After that, it's a work-packed two days at the AIA Business Conference itself, where Dave will be sitting through several important presentations including one entitled "Outlook for the Global Economy" by Alan Beaulieu, from the Institute for Trend Research.

But that's not all he'll have to do. Oh no. There will be other sessions that he'll have to attend too, including one from George Chamberlain of Pleora Technologies on AIA Standards as well as an update on the Machine Vision Market in North America by Paul Kellett from ATC.

Naturally enough, while he's there, Dave will be only too pleased to discuss any new, exciting applications that you or your company might have developed over the past year or so -- great fodder we might be able to develop as stories for upcoming issues of Vision Systems Design magazine.

While it sounds like an arduous schedule, it should be easy going for an old pro like Dave. But just to make sure that it isn't too easy for him, I've even shipped down an old notebook PC of mine to the hotel where he's staying to ensure that -- should he actually have any free time -- he can spend it working, rather than goofing off.

If Dave looks tired after the event, I'll know he has done his job properly. If he has a tan, however, send me an e-mail to let me know.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

What's next for Kinect?

This past Monday, Microsoft's Craig Eisler formally announced that new Kinect for Windows hardware and accompanying software would be available from February 1 this year in 12 countries including the US at a suggested retail price of $249.

Microsoft has chosen a hardware-only business model for Kinect for Windows, which means that the company will not be charging for the software development kit (SDK) or the runtime system. These will be available free to developers and end users, respectively. Independent developers will not pay license fees for the Kinect for Windows software or the ongoing software updates, and new Kinect for Windows hardware will be supported by Microsoft.

Of particular interest to developers will be new firmware that enables the depth camera to see objects as close as 50 cm in front of the device without losing accuracy or precision, with graceful degradation down to 40 cm.

The $249 price tag includes a one-year warranty and access to ongoing software updates for both speech and human tracking. Later this year, the company will offer special academic pricing (planned at $149) for qualified educational users.

Addressing the reason why the pricing of the Kinect for Windows system was higher than the Kinect for Xbox system, Eisler said that Microsoft's ability to sell Kinect for Xbox 360 at its current price point is in large part subsidized by consumers buying a number of Kinect games, subscribing to Xbox Live, and making other transactions associated with the Xbox 360.

In addition, he said that the Kinect for Xbox 360 was built for and tested with the Xbox 360 console only, which is why it was not licensed for general commercial use, supported, or under warranty when used on any other platform.

The news will undoubtedly be greeted with some interest by system developers who may now consider using the Kinect system in a variety of manufacturing and retail applications.

Those who might still be somewhat skeptical should note that -- during a keynote speech at the CES show (Las Vegas, Nevada) -- Microsoft's Steve Ballmer announced that Siemens, Citi, Boeing, American Express, Unilever, United Health Group, Mattel, and Toyota are just some of the companies that Microsoft is already working with to develop Kinect-based systems.

Clearly, Microsoft has great hopes that the platform will be successful outside the gaming arena. And if you have an interesting idea of how you could use the Kinect system, then you might like to consider taking part in a Microsoft's initiative called the Kinect Accelerator incubation project, which is run by Microsoft BizSpark.

The project will give ten successful companies an investment of $20,000 each to develop a system around the Kinect on either Windows or Xbox 360. At the end of the program, each company will have an opportunity to present at an Investor Demo Day to angel investors, venture capitalists, Microsoft executives, and media and industry professionals.

Applications are being accepted through Jan. 25, 2012, so there's still time to make a proposal.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Simulator aids design for the visually impaired

One of the problems with getting older is that one's ability to see fine details deteriorates, as does the ability to see in the dark. And that's not good if you drive a motor vehicle, because it means that -- unless you have bifocal or varifocal glasses -- you could struggle to read the instrument cluster while driving.

Recognizing that fact, researchers at Cambridge University's (Cambridge, UK) Engineering Design Centre have developed a Vision Impairment Simulator that enables designers and engineers to gain a better understanding of the effects of a wide variety of visual impairments.

The tool -- developed by Cambridge design research associate Dr. Sam Waller -- allows a user to simulate visual impairments on any image. After an image is loaded into the simulator, an operator can select a visual impairment and look at the image as someone with that impairment would see it.

Even in the case of age-related macular degeneration, where the loss of central vision moves around with the eye, the software simulates the effect by allowing a user to move the "blind spot" around to see its effect on different parts of the image.

The software has already proved a hit with engineers at auto giant Ford (Brentwood, UK), who are using it to study and optimize the design of their instrument displays to ensure they can be safely and comfortably read by as many drivers as possible.

Interestingly enough, the software isn't limited to applications in the automotive field. It has also been used to improve the design of mobile phones and for teaching what’s known as inclusive design at several universities.

Analyzing population statistics and creating design tools that enable designers to engineer products that offer a better experience across a wider range of users is clearly an important issue, and one that will become more important as a greater number of people live to older age.

So now perhaps its time for more companies -- even those in the vision industry -- to make a New Year's resolution to determine how their systems might be made more accessible to a wider group of individuals as well.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Us and them

Last month, an RQ-170 Sentinel UAV nicknamed the "Beast of Kandahar" fell into the hands of the Iranians after the United States Department of Defense lost control of it while it was flying through Iranian airspace.

Needless to say, the high-tech piece of Lockheed Martin gear was immediately put on display by the Iranians, who claimed to have brought the unmanned reconnaissance vehicle down to earth by sophisticated electronic counter-warfare measures.

Whether they did, or whether the landing was simply due to a malfunction of a system onboard the aircraft itself, the whole affair proved very embarrassing for the US Government, which formally requested that the aircraft be returned to its rightful owners.

The Iranians, however, didn't see things quite the same way. Instead they issued a formal complaint to the United Nations Security Council stating that the incident was tantamount to an act of hostility against their country in contravention of international law.

The whole affair raises an important issue about the deployment of such unmanned aircraft -- notably, that there do not appear to be any hard and fast rules that govern when such UAVs can be flown over a country given the fact that the government of that country has not granted permission for such operations to take place.

To rectify this dilemma, perhaps it's now time that an international body drew up a set of guidelines for what is -- and is not -- deemed to be the acceptable use of such systems and for what purposes.

Such an idealistic notion, however, is unlikely to find much favor at the present time, especially with countries that feel that they have the right to fly such aircraft over whatever country's airspace they like in the interest of their own national security.

But such guidelines won't seem so idealistic in the future, I'm sure, when countries such as Iran reverse-engineer the downed unmanned aerial technology and then feel that they have equal rights to perform reciprocal measures on the countries that have been snooping on them for years. That's if they have the know-how to do it.