Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Droning on about surveillance

This month, Apple (Cupertino, CA, USA) and Google (Mountain View, CA, USA) unveiled competing software applications that display 3-D maps with an unprecedented level of detail. In order to create the maps, the companies are using planes equipped with high-resolution imaging equipment.

Not everyone is happy about the situation. US Senator Charles E. Schumer is one of them. When the two industry giants made their announcements, he raised the issue that a race to develop the most comprehensive and precise mapping technology could have the consequence of eroding privacy and creating security risks.

"By taking detailed pictures of individuals in intimate locations such as around a pool, or in their backyard, or even through their windows, these programs have the potential to put private images on public display. We need to hit the pause button here and figure out what is happening and how we can best protect peoples' privacy, without unduly impeding technological advancement," he said.

On his web site, the US Senator argued that such detailed photographs could provide terrorists with detailed views of sensitive utilities. On current online maps, many power lines, power sub stations, and reservoir access points are not very visible due to the reduced resolution currently used.

However, if highly detailed images become available, criminals could create more complete schematic maps of the power and water grids in the United States. With the vast amount of infrastructure across the country, it would be impossible to secure every location.

To protect individuals' personal privacy and sensitive infrastructure sites, Schumer called on Apple and Google to fully disclose what privacy protection plans and safeguards they intend to put in place for the highly detailed and precise images they will be able to capture.

Additionally, Schumer asked the companies to provide notification to communities as to when they plan to conduct mapping, to commit to blurring out photographs of individuals who are captured in the images, to give property owners the right to opt-out of having the company map their homes, and put protocols in place with law enforcement agencies to ensure that sensitive infrastructure details are blurred from published maps.

That seems like an eminently sensible suggestion to me. After all, no-one I know would be very happy to discover that the two computer behemoths had inadvertently captured high-resolution images of them in any sort of compromising situations whatsoever.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Canary in a coal mine

As late as 1987, canaries were used in British coal mines to act as an early warning system. If the canaries dropped down dead, the miners knew that they had most likely been killed by toxic gases -- a clear indication that it was probably time to hurry out of the mine before they suffered the same fate.

Thankfully, the use -- or abuse -- of these particularly lovely songbirds was phased out in British mines in 1987, two years after the end of the British miners' strike which resulted in the UK Government of the time closing most of the state owned mines anyway.

Now, however, the concept is being revived -- albeit in a somewhat different form -- by researchers at the UK-based National Physical Laboratory (NPL; Teddington, UK). Yes, that's right. The research team at NPL is conducting a study into the field of prognostics, the art of monitoring the health of electronic assemblies and estimating their remaining useful life.

Knowing when an electronic assembly is going to fail can give a company a competitive edge, as it allows for longer periods of time between scheduled maintenance and an associated reduction in costs. By replacing components before they fail, equipment downtime can also be minimized.

There are several different approaches to prognostics. But the researchers in the new project aim to examine the interconnections between in electronic assemblies, measuring their electrical impedance, noise and linearity to identify suitable indicators for predicting the remaining useful life of the components.

And there's a vision aspect to the whole affair too, you'll be pleased to hear. The NPL team is also going to be trialing the use of lock-in thermography (LIT) too. Using the LIT system, they will generate thermal maps which they will then attempt to correlate with the age of the components of the electronic system.

The researchers will also look at so-called 'canary components', which are designed to fail earlier than any other electronic component to warn of the impending failure of a device -- much in the way that those poor old birds were once used in coal mines as an indicator of the toxicity of the air.

Industrial partners are encouraged to get involved in the project and to help decide on what components and conditions to include in the research. The folks at NPL advise any interested parties to get in touch with them by the 30th June 2012.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Is mathematical morphology worth nothing?

When our European Editor asked me if I could recommend a good book he could read to bone up on all things related to computer vision, one specific tome came to mind -- a particularly weighty volume entitled "Image Processing and Mathematical Morphology: Fundamentals and Applications."

Written by Professor Frank Shih, the Director of the Computer Vision Laboratory at New Jersey Institute of Technology, this book lifts the lid off the subjects of processing and morphology -- two fields which have become increasingly important to the world of automated vision detection and inspection and object recognition.

I recommended Professor Frank Shih's book because it provides a comprehensive overview of morphological image processing and analysis. It presents the necessary fundamentals, advanced techniques, and practical applications for researchers, scientists, engineers -- and yes, even humble Editors -- who work in image processing, machine vision, and pattern recognition disciplines.

Our European Editor was quick to take me up on the idea. After a brief search on the Internet, he discovered that there were several copies of the book available on the Amazon UK web site at around $130. Not a bad price for a book that is so comprehensive, I thought.

But these are tough economic times for us all. So rather than purchase the book outright, our parsimonious penny-pinching European editor decided to see if he could find another site where he might be able to obtain the book whilst parting with substantially less of his hard earned currency.

After spending another hour or so of his time on the computer, the diligent Editor did indeed discover a copy of the publication that was considerably cheaper. More precisely, it cost absolutely nothing at all. That's right. He discovered that he could obtain the book without even parting with one silver sixpence from his old moth-infested piggy bank.

All because of the fact that a chap who goes by the name of Pablo Caicedo has uploaded the 442-page work onto a web site called Indeed, just by clicking here, anyone can read and potentially download Professor Frank Shih's entire book for free.

Somewhat taken back by this turn of events, our honest European Editor wondered if reading, or downloading, the book in question was strictly legal, or whether the chap that had uploaded it had done so without the permission of the author.

Without wanting to become involved in any business that might compromise his moral integrity, our European Editor dropped Professor Shih an email to inform him that his book was available for free on the site, and asked him whether or not it was within his rights to download it.

So far, Professor Shih hasn't replied to his email.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Japanese invasion at Oregon beach

Last week, visitors to an Oregon beach one mile north of Newport reported that they had seen a loose dock floating offshore. Not content with staying in the ocean, the object then washed ashore whereupon it was immediately scrutinized by the State authorities.

At that time, the origin of the object on Agate Beach was unknown, and there was no obvious evidence that it might have crossed the ocean. How could it have? After all, at seven feet tall, nineteen feet wide and sixty six feet long, the dock is very large and heavy.

Then, two days later came the rather amazing news that a metal placard bearing Japanese writing was found attached to the derelict dock. The placard was forwarded to the Japanese consulate in Portland, Oregon who confirmed that the dock washed ashore was debris from the March 2011 tsunami in Japan.

Shortly after the dock made landfall, staff from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department checked it for traces of radioactivity. Fortunately, there wasn't any. But what scientists at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport did find, however, was evidence of marine life.

Now while some of that marine life was native to US coastal waters, some of it was specific to the waters of Japan. Among the exotic species were different kinds of mussels, barnacles and marine algae. One invasive marine algae in particular -- Undaria pinnatifida, commonly called wakame -- was present on the structure.

As a precaution, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife co-ordinated a group of volunteers to remove the organisms from the dock while also removing the salt water-dependent organisms from the beach.

 Now, as any ecologist worth his salt will tell you, invasive species such as algae and mussels can inflict a lot of damage to a local ecosystem. But fortunately, however, there are some image processing systems out there in the market that can be suitably deployed to spot the little devils.

One such system is the FlowCAM from marine instrumentation manufacturer Fluid Imaging Technologies (Yarmouth, ME, USA) which has already been put to use to analyze many types of microscopic organisms and particles in oceans, lakes, reservoirs and streams.

But better yet, it can also be equipped with a cross-polarized illumination option which can be used to detect larval-stage invasive mussel species such as Zebra and Quagga mussels. It can do so since the skeletons of the organisms are calcareous and exhibit birefringence under cross-polarized light.

The company says that using the FlowCAM with cross-polarization eliminates the human error that may be introduced using manual microscopy methods. And because the technique detects the larval stage of the species, it is able to detect the invasive species significantly earlier than other techniques.

Thankfully then, it would appear that should anymore Japanese invasions of US beaches take place, at least we can arm ourselves with the technology to determine just how ecologically unfriendly they might be.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A new vision for touch screen displays

Most new mobile devices such as cell phones and tablets make use of touch screen technology. And while that might give them an elegant look, it's not a great deal of help to the visually impaired, who may experience a great deal of difficulty using one.

Now, however, engineers at an outfit called Tactus Technology (Fremont, CA, USA) have developed a rather nifty technical solution to the problem.

The company's so-called patented deformable tactile surface called the "Tactile Layer" enables on-screen buttons to rise up from the surface of a touch screen when an application calls for them to do so. Users can feel, press down and interact with the physical buttons just like they would use keys on a keyboard.

A quick look at the patented technology (for a list of patents, please see link below) reveals that the engineers at Tactus Technology created the system using a network of fluidic channels that are coupled to cavities underneath the specific areas on the display. When called upon to do so by an application, the fluid is pumped into these cavities, causing regions on the surface of the deformable display to be raised. When no longer required, the fluid is released from the cavity, leaving no trace of the deformity.

The company says that because the Tactile Layer panel is a completely flat, transparent, dynamic surface, it adds no extra thickness to the standard touch screen display since it replaces a layer of the already existing display stack.

Tactus Technology has already demonstrated the capability of the technology on a prototype Google Android tablet, as the result of a partnership between the company and Touch Revolution (Redwood City, CA, USA), a unit of TPK Holding -- the largest-volume glass projected capacitive multi-touch screen manufacturer in the world.

While the company is obviously keen to market the technology to manufacturers of high volume devices, I can't help but think that there might also be some rather interesting applications for this technology in the field of machine vision too.

The most obvious one, of course, would be in the touch panel screens that are commonly used as Human Machine Interfaces (HMIs) in vision systems that allow users to set up and/or modify the parameters of their vision inspection systems.

Like consumers, many operators of such machines are also faced with poor typing speed, errors and insufficient feedback. And it's here that the Tactus technology could be mighty useful too.

A list of patents that detail the technology behind the device is available here.

Friday, June 1, 2012

A sound rival for Kinect

Since its introduction, systems developers have created a myriad of rather innovative applications using Microsoft's Kinect -- the motion sensing input device the company developed for the Xbox 360 video game console and Windows PCs.

Naturally enough, the folks at Microsoft have also been busy conjuring up some interesting applications for the Kinect system too. Last month, for example, the company revealed that researchers from its Redmond, Washington research labs had teamed up with others from the University of California, Los Angeles (Los Angeles, CA, USA) to develop a system that can determine the identity of an individual from a group of individuals interacting with a multi-user interactive touch display.

The so-called ShakeID system makes the assumption that each user is holding a smart-phone or other portable device whose movement is sensed by an in-built 3-axis accelerometer. The ShakeID system can then identify which user is using the multi-user interactive touch display by matching the motion sensed by the device to body motion captured by the Kinect camera.

As far as they are aware, the researchers believe that this is the first attempt to fuse data from the Kinect system with inertial sensing from mobile devices to identify users of multi-touch interactive displays.

But although gesture is becoming an increasingly popular means of interacting with computers, it's still relatively costly to deploy gesture recognition sensors in existing mobile platforms such as cell phones.

And that's why another group of Microsoft researchers has teamed up with researchers from the University of Washington (Seattle, WA, USA) to develop what they are calling SoundWave, a system that makes use of the speaker and microphone already embedded in most commodity devices to sense gestures around the device.

To do this, the SoundWave system generates an inaudible tone, which gets frequency-shifted when it reflects off moving objects like the hand. The shift is then measured with the microphone in the device to infer various gestures.

Although the Microsoft team developed and tested the algorithms for the system on various laptops and desktop PCs, they believe that the approach could be extended to smart phones and tablets using the same frequency shift technique.

More information on the ShakeID system can be found here.

More information on the SoundWave system can be found here.