Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Vision Systems Design: The Swimsuit Issue, Part 2

Hard on the heels of the fascinating revelations in last week's blog (Vision Systems Design: The Swimsuit Issue) comes the news that the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue has once again employed some rather nifty imaging technology to bring more life to the swimsuit models featured on its pages.

For the second year in a row, the publisher has digitally watermarked photos of the scantily clad ladies in its issue using Digimarc's (Beaverton OR, USA) digital watermarking technology. For those of you who may not know, this digital watermarking technique embeds an imperceptible pattern into the image that can be detected by a smart phone but not by the human eye.

Unlike a QR code, these watermarks have the advantage that they do not cover a part of an image or ruin the design of the pages of the swimsuit issue -- a move which I'm sure would upset many of the magazine's readers if they did.

To launch the behind-the-scenes videos of the nineteen different swimsuit models, users simply need to use a mobile swimsuit viewer app -- available for iPhone, iPad, and Android -- which then enables such devices to detect the digitally watermarked photos and launch the videos associated with them.

The swimsuit viewer mobile app and video delivery process were built and are managed by Nellymoser (Arlington, MA, USA) -- a mobile marketing and technology services company. The app and video are powered by Nellymoser's "mobile engagement platform," which enables digital content to be presented across desktops, tablets, and phones.

While the development of such a watermark image encoder and reader app might seem somewhat trivial to those of us in design and manufacturing, it is in fact high-volume applications such as these that may ultimately drive down the cost of the technology, allowing it to be used by all sorts of folks in industrial marketing too.

Having said that, enabling a user to launch an interactive video of a machine vision system for automating the process of de-boning lamb carcasses or removing the internal organs of animals such as cows or pigs from a promotional flyer distributed at a trade show might be taking things a little too far.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Vision Systems Design: The Swimsuit Issue

Many popular magazines such as Sports Illustrated rely on publishing yearly issues dedicated to celebrating the predominantly female human form in swimsuits, a cunning wheeze that boosts circulation and sales.

For years I have been wondering how a magazine such as Vision Systems Design might possibly be able to justify covering such a subject to the same effect. And recently I discovered the answer to my prayers.

The solution, naturally enough, lies in writing numerous stories about particle image velocimetry, a technique that uses a laser to illuminate millions of reflective particles in water. When images of the same are then captured by high-speed cameras, they allow researchers to observe how the particles move around objects found in the water -- including, of course, folks wearing swimsuits.

Through the use of such equipment, researchers hope to be able to develop more high-tech swimsuits that would give athletes a competitive advantage by reducing the drag of the water around their bodies as they swim.

Now there's been quite a lot of research work performed in this area, predominantly at Leeds University (Leeds, UK), where a Speedo-sponsored team led by Professor Jeff Peakall has been engaged conducting tests to examine how efficiently different fabrics move through the water.

Most recently, the university team was commissioned by the swimwear company to assist in the development of its new FASTSKIN3 Racing System swimsuit and spent 18 months testing levels of "fabric drag."

In a statement to the press this month, Peakall said, "We're really excited because I think we've found out that some of the materials are appreciably faster than anything we've seen before, and I'm absolutely confident that this is going to be of great benefit to competitive swimmers."

Not everyone is so optimistic. Take George Lauder, the Henry Bryant Bigelow Professor of Ichthyology at Harvard University (Cambridge, MA, USA), for example. He argues that the notion that simply donning a different swimsuit -- like a Speedo FASTSKIN II suit, with a surface purportedly designed to mimic shark skin to gain an edge on the competition -- is almost completely misplaced.

Experiments conducted in Lauder's lab, and described in The Journal of Experimental Biology, reveal that, while sharks' sandpaper-like skin does allow the animals to swim faster and more efficiently, the surface of the high-tech swimsuits has no effect when it comes to reducing drag as swimmers move through the water.

Indeed, Lauder claims to have conclusively shown that the surface properties themselves, which the manufacturer has in the past claimed to be biomimetic, don't do anything for propulsion.

That's not to say that the suits as a whole do nothing to improve performance. Lauder also reasons that there are all sorts of effects at work that aren't due to the surface effects of the swimsuit.

"Swimmers who wear these suits are squeezed into them extremely tightly, so they are very streamlined. They're so tight that they could actually change the circulation (of the swimmer), and increase the venous return to the body, and they are tailored to make it easier to maintain proper posture even when tired. I'm convinced they work, but it's not because of the surface," he says.

All that remains to be seen now is whether my swimsuit column has done anything to improve the circulation of Vision Systems Design and boost its companion web site page views.

1. Flumes and lasers test elite sportswear
2. Skin deep

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

In search of a scoop

Ever in search of an exclusive scoop to whet the appetites of the Vision Systems Design readers, I often spend the evenings trawling through numerous announcements that have been made by researchers on scientific web sites such as Eurekalert and Alphagalileo.

This week, through my web surfing activity, I came across the news that a group of researchers in the US and the UK have developed a means to put MRI scanners to work capturing images of the surfaces of the conductors found in lithium-ion batteries.

As many of you know, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a medical imaging technique widely used in radiology that can create detailed images of structures within the body.

However, the strong magnetic fields that are used in such systems make them unsuitable for use with patients with metal implants because the conducting surfaces block the radio-frequency fields used in the systems.

Now, researchers at Cambridge University (Cambridge, UK), Stony Brook University (Stony Brook, NY, USA), and New York University (NYU; New York, NY, USA) have turned that limitation into a virtue, using an MRI scanner to directly visualize the build-up of lithium metal deposits on the electrodes of lithium-ion batteries.

Their work visualizing small changes on the surface of the batteries' electrodes might in principle allow many different battery designs and materials to be tested under normal operating conditions.

Indeed, Professor Alexej Jerschow from the Department of Chemistry at NYU said that using such noninvasive MRI systems could provide insights into the microscopic processes inside batteries, which hold the key to eventually making them lighter, safer, and more versatile.

I'm sure that one day they might be able to. Especially considering the number of other research groups across the world that are also using such MRI imaging systems to study electrochemically induced structural changes in batteries. You only have to perform a Google search of the scientific literature to find out just how many there are.

So while the news might be interesting, it wasn't exactly the scoop that I was looking for when I began my search for an exclusive "new technology." Then again, perhaps the story simply illustrates the point that very few researchers work in isolation, and that innovative ideas often occur as a result of methodical, cooperative scientific effort and rarely through one single individual's "Eureka" moment.

Those who are interested in learning more about the technique can find a complete technical description at

Friday, February 10, 2012

You press the button, we do the rest

This week, Eastman Kodak announced that it was to phase out its digital camera, pocket video camera, and digital picture frame businesses in the first half of this year.

Founded by George Eastman in 1889, the company made its name selling inexpensive film cameras and making large margins from the film, chemicals, and paper that were required to capture and develop the images that they took.

Now, by getting out of the digital camera business that replaced its old film cameras, the company expects to achieve operating savings of more than $100 million a year.

It's a sad state of affairs but hardly unexpected. The move comes hot on the heels of last month's announcement that the company had filed for filed voluntary petitions for Chapter 11 business reorganization in the US Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York.

But perhaps it doesn't quite mean the end of the Kodak brand, because the company is seeking to expand its current brand licensing program by looking for interested parties to license the products instead.

It's better news, thank goodness, at the company's former Image Sensor Solutions (ISS) division business. Now called Truesense Imaging -- after being acquired from Eastman Kodak by Platinum Equity through a transaction with Kodak that closed on Nov. 7, 2011 -- it would appear that the only thing to have changed at the company is its name.

Truesense Imaging, still with its headquarters in Rochester, NY, has kept Kodak's research and development, marketing, and business operations intact, including its highly specialized image-sensor manufacturing operation.

The name change, which was also only announced this week, is so recent that when our European correspondent met up with Truesense Imaging's Michael DeLuca at the AIA Business Conference just a few weeks ago in Orlando, Florida, he was still carrying a Kodak business card, which was -- naturally enough -- printed on Kodak paper.

Perhaps he should hang onto it. It might be worth some money as an antique in the future.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Vision systems come to the aid of homeowners

When my brother's sewer pipe blocked up last year, he called out the helpful chaps from Dyno-Rod. But when it became clear that the cause of the blockage wasn't immediately obvious, they took a closer look with their CCTV equipment.

Now, usually blocked drains can be caused by a number of factors, but most of the time it is simply a buildup of whatever's gone into the drain.

But this time around, it wasn't. No, the CCTV footage showed quite clearly that the cause of the problem was roots that had grown into the pipework from a tree that had been planted close to the house.

Having determined the cause of the problem, it was simply a case of hauling the tree out of the backyard, getting the roots out of the pipe and relining it.

More recently, my brother's been in contact with me again. This time around, he is concerned that the gutters around the top of the house have been blocked with leaves and debris, causing water to overflow into the yard rather than drain away through the downpipes on the side of the house.

Fortunately, after a quick look on the web, I discovered yet another system -- and one that also partially makes use of vision -- that might be able to help him here too.

The new system, called the VertaLok Rotary Gutter Cleaning System, provides an effective solution to my brother's problem -- all without him having to put a foot on a ladder.

The product itself consists of a number of extendable pole sections with an internal rotary drive that can be connected to a cordless drill, and a water channel that can be hooked up to a garden hose.

On the end of the pole section -- the end that is destined for the gutter -- a user can attach a number of tools. These include a rotary paddle brush that works with the cordless drill for removal of leaves and loose debris, a gutter scoop with water jet nozzle for wet compost and tough debris, and a gutter brush with water jet nozzle for cleaning and rinsing.

Bu the best bit of the whole system must surely be the mounting bracket that will allow my brother to attach a digital camera to the system, enabling him to perform a video inspection from ground level before or after he has finished cleaning his gutters.

Now this development might not sound like the most novel use of a vision system that we have ever covered here on the Vision Systems Design web site. And indeed, if you think so, then I'd be tempted to agree with you.

But it does go to show just how pervasive image capture and analysis is becoming in all our daily lives.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Online tutorials help demystify the selection process

Determining the best industrial camera for your new system without being able to test it in a final design is important, because choosing the appropriate camera from the outset can eliminate costly redesigns or upgrades in the future.

For many of us that have been involved in the vision systems design business for a while, the selection of cameras best suited to perform a particular role in a system may come as second nature.

However, for those folks who have entered the industry a little more recently, the superfluity of camera manufacturers and the different types of products that they make might appear to make such a selection process a rather daunting one.

Now, to help such folks out, engineers at Adimec (Eindhoven, the Netherlands) have written a three-part blog series in which they suggest a step-by-step approach that will hopefully help in the camera selection process to enable you to find the best candidate for your particular job.

While the selection of the appropriate camera is undoubtedly vital, the choice of lighting is no less important, and, indeed, often plays a critical role in creating a robust vision inspection system.

Thankfully, there's also a rather good tutorial on the web that might help you in that area too. Written by Daryl Martin, from Advanced illumination (Rochester, VT, USA), and available on the National Instruments site, it demonstrates many machine-vision lighting concepts and theories.

If these two web sites provide you with some assistance in the task of choosing a camera or a lighting system -- or if you know of any other useful resources that you think might be useful to others -- why not drop me a line to let me know?