Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Galilean Christmas time

Regular readers of this blog might remember that a week or so ago I reported on a New Zealand engineer by the name of Mark Hampton who is attempting to fund the development of a right-angled lens for the Apple iPhone camera and Apple iPad through a site called Kickstarter.

As I mentioned before, the New York City-based Kickstarter web site is a funding platform which enables creative individuals to post ideas for potential new products on the site.

If readers of the web site like a particular product enough to buy it, they can pre-order it by pledging money to the company that has designed it. If the company then succeeds in reaching its funding goal to manufacture the product, all backers' credit cards are charged and the products are produced and delivered. If the project falls short of reaching its goals, no one is charged.

Well, I'm now pleased to report that $17,030 has already been pledged for Hampton's project and with only a $27,500 target to hit, it now looks as if his dream of making his product a reality will soon come true.

While tracking the fortunes of Hampton, I’ve also been checking out the other products that the Kickstarter web site has successfully funded. And I’m pleased to say that I have found one in particular that would make the perfect present for a whole bunch of my friends this Christmas.

The product itself is an iPhone platform called Galileo that can be controlled remotely from an Apple iPad or other iOS device. Capable of 360 degree pan-and-tilt at speeds up to 200 degree per second in any orientation, Galileo should prove not only useful amateur photographers but also folks with babies and toddlers who'd like to keep an eye on their activities!

Rather amazingly, to put the little beast into production, entrepreneurs Josh Guyot and JoeBen Bevirt were originally seeking pledges of up to $100,000 on the Kickstarter site, but it appears that the project garnered so much interest that over 5,000 people backed the idea with the result that the team raked in a whopping $702,427.

Unfortunately, much to my dismay, it's still impossible to actually purchase one of the little robotic beasts from Motrr (Santa Cruz, CA, USA) -- the company that the duo set up to sell the units. At the present time, the best that one can do is to sign up to be notified via email when the Galileo will be available for sale.

Hopefully, that will be in time for Christmas.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Attention seeking

Have you ever nodded off during a lecture or a seminar? I know I have. In my case, it's usually when I'm presented with long-winded discussions about the financial state of the economy, rather than when I'm treated to an engaging treatise on how a particular individual has developed an innovative vision inspection system.

As a student, I had the same problem. If the lecturer wasn't particularly engaging, I found that my mind tended to wander to some other entirely more fanciful place, where I imagined that I might be occupied by some all together more interesting activities.

Recognizing that other students have the same attention deficit disorders, a professor of physics education at Kennesaw State University (Kennesaw, GA, USA) has been trying to uncover why by equipping them with eye-tracking technology during lectures in the classroom.

His first-of-its-kind study aims to provide new insights into effective teaching techniques that can keep students engaged and motivated to learn during lectures.

By using glasses equipped with eye-tracking technology from Tobii Technology (Danderyd, Sweden), Professor David Rosengrant was able to measure what students observe during a lecture, how much of their time was dedicated to the material presented in the class, and discover what the factors were that distracted them the most.

Professor Rosengrant's pilot study was held over a four-month period with eight college students in 70-minute pre-elementary education lectures at Kennesaw State University.

The study discredited the widely accepted belief that classroom attention peaks during the first 15 minutes of class and then generally tapers off. Instead, Rosengrant discovered that classroom attention is actually impacted by various factors throughout the duration of lecture.

Those factors include the verbal presentation of new material that is not contained within an instructor's PowerPoint presentation, the use of humor by the instructor and the proximity of the instructor to the student, which all contribute to greater attention from the student.

Professor Rosengrant's study also concluded that "digital distractions" such as mobile phones and the Web -- particularly Facebook -- are the greatest inhibitors to retaining students' attention in the classroom.

When I read that, I started to get a bit hot under the collar. While I appreciate that not all academics are born teachers, the least the students who attend their classes can do is to respect them enough not to fiddle with their digital paraphernalia during their lectures. Even I would show a poor presenter that amount of consideration, and that's saying something.

Related items on eye tracking technology from Vision Systems Design that you might also find of interest.

1. Eye tracking helps spot movement disorder

Tobii Technology (Danderyd, Sweden) has selected a behavioral research team that used eye-tracking technology to enhance its understanding of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP) as the winner of its annual Tobii EyeTrack Award.

2. Researchers can track what catches a designer's eye 

An eye-tracking system developed by researchers at The Open University and the University of Leeds (Leeds, UK) aims to remove the constraints on creativity imposed by computer-aided design (CAD) tools.

3. Eye test for Alzheimer's disease 

UK researchers have demonstrated that people with Alzheimer's disease have difficulty with one particular type of eye-tracking test.

4. Eye tracker spots liars with greater accuracy

Computer scientists at the University of Buffalo (UB; Buffalo, NY, USA) are exploring whether machines can read visual cues that give away deceit.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Image analysis makes shopping simple

A 25-year old with a master's degree in computer science from Bristol University (Bristol, UK) has picked up a $100,000 cash prize after winning the Cisco British Innovation Gateway Awards for developing a novel image matching application that can take the drudgery out of shopping for clothes.

Jenny Griffiths -- one of only two women in her class of thirty at the university -- developed the idea after getting frustrated with attempting to locate and purchase clothes that she liked at a reasonable price. So she went out and used her new found knowledge to make the whole process a whole lot easier.

The result of her hard work is what's now known as "Snap Fashion" -- a visual search engine that lets consumers search for clothing using images instead of words.

In a nutshell, it comprises a free a smartphone app that a user first fires up to take an image of a product that she might like to buy but perhaps can't afford. The image is then delivered to the Snap Fashion server where algorithms developed by Griffiths automatically analyze it and return images of similar -- hopefully less expensive products -- from a variety of retailers' websites within five seconds. The results can then be filtered based on any aspect of the product -- such as the color and cut of a dress. Finally, an item can be purchased directly from the retailer, while Snap Fashion earns commission on every sale.

The net is cast wide courtesy of Snap Fashion's database, which currently counts more than 100 major retailers. It's a catalogue that boasts high street giants including Gap, Jigsaw, Jaeger, Uniqlo, Warehouse, L K Bennett, French Connection, Reiss, Monsoon, and Kurt Geiger, in addition to retailers from to to, and a host of department stores such as Harrods, Selfridges, Liberty, House of Fraser, and US fashion emporium Bloomingdales.

Not just a shopping tool, there are other tricks to Snap Fashion too, such as a personal shopping service that offers tips and advice on what styles best suit the user's personal body shape via body shape recognition technology.

The Cisco British Innovation Gateway Awards were launched this year with the aim of recognizing and supporting up-and-coming innovators, entrepreneurs and businesses. And naturally enough, I'm delighted that one of the first winners of the award has developed a product related to image analysis!

But if you are a budding inventor in the UK and feeling a bit miffed that you hadn't heard of the awards in time to enter them this year, don't worry. The good news is that the contest -- which aims to attract high-potential technology startups that are seeking investment and support -- is running over a five period.

More information on the Cisco British Innovation Gateway Awards can be found here. Snap Fashion's home page can be found here.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Kick starting manufacturing

In today's tough economic climate, it's difficult for small teams of engineers to obtain funding from the banks to finance the development of their new products no matter how original or innovative they might be.

Now, however, thanks to a website called Kickstarter, there's an alternative way that engineers with bright ideas can reduce the financial burden of getting their new products into the hands of early adopters.

The folks behind the New York City-based Kickstarter web site describe it as an "all-or nothing" funding platform which enables creative individuals to post ideas for potential new products on the site.

If readers of the web site like a particular product enough to buy it, they can pre-order it by pledging money to the company that has designed it. If the company then succeeds in reaching its funding goal to manufacture the product, all backers' credit cards are charged and the products are produced and delivered. If the project falls short of reaching its goals, no one is charged.

One of the individuals excited about the Kickstarter site is Auckland, New Zealand-based engineer Mark Hampton who is hoping to raise enough funding on the site to make his dreams of producing a right-angled lens for the Apple iPhone camera and Apple iPad come true.

Hampton started the development of his so-called HiLO lens in 2011. Since then he teamed up with an optical engineer, a mechanical designer, and an app developer to demonstrate the effectiveness of a prototype of the device which he now hopes to take into full production through his Kickstarter campaign.

According to Hampton, the HiLO product is built from three custom designed lenses and a prism. A free app that will come with the product corrects for the mirroring of the image caused by the prism and improves image quality.

It's a pretty simple concept, but one that might well fill a niche in the market for individuals who want to take high angle and low angle photos on their iPhones.

Backers on Kickstarter can pre-purchase one of Hampton's HiLO lenses now. If the backers pledge a total of $27,500, then the pledges will be collected and an initial production run of the lens system will be made in China. So far, Hampton and his team have raised $8,450. Hopefully, more support will be forthcoming!

Mark Hampton's project page on the Kickstarter web site can be found here.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Good times in Asia?

A UK researcher made a projection this month that Asian countries -- excluding Japan -- will be the largest market for machine vision systems in 2016.

According to John Morse, the author of the latest machine vision report from IMS Research (Wellingborough, UK), Japan has always been the largest market for machine vision in the Asia Pacific region. But despite this, Japan's economic growth is currently slow largely due to decreasing demand for its exports.

Morse says that this is not expected to improve much over the next five years, because Japan's leading position is being eroded as other countries within the region embrace automation in their production facilities.

Nevertheless, the report claims that the Asian region itself -- with the exception of Japan that is -- is collectively forecast to generate revenues from sales of machine vision systems that will exceed those generated in the Americas after 2012. This rapid growth is expected to continue -- revenues from the Asian region will even surpass revenues generated in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) after 2015.

The report projects that the strongest growth for machine vision systems will be in China, South Korea and Taiwan, reflecting the general economic growth forecast in these countries.

The latest outlook from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) would appear to give a lot of credibility to the IMS report. The IMF is projecting, for example, that in Asia, growth in Real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will average 6.7 percent in 2012, and is forecast to accelerate to 7.25 percent in the second half of 2012.

In its latest World Economic Outlook, unveiled in Tokyo ahead of the IMF-World Bank 2012 Annual Meetings, the IMF said that the advanced economies, however, were unlikely to fare as well.

In the US, growth will average 2.2 percent this year. Real GDP is projected to expand by about 1.5 percent during the second half of 2012, rising to 2.75 percent later in 2013.

In the Euro area, it's not even that rosy. There, real GDP is projected to decline by 0.4 percent in 2012 overall during the second half of 2012 with public spending cutbacks and the still-weak financial system weighing on prospects.

But despite the bright prospects that both IMS and the IMF have painted for the folks in Asia, I can't help but feel that -- with decreasing exports to the US and Europe -- they might just see their growth stunted too.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Surf's up

When my nephew left college with a master's degree in computer science and electronic engineering, he was headhunted by more than a few firms, some of which were in the field of engineering and some of which were in the field of financial services.

Being a talented young man, he was faced with a choice -- should he take one of the jobs he was offered by one of the engineering companies, or should he accept a more lucrative position at a financial organization in The Big City.

After deliberating the issue for several days, he decided to let his heart rule his wallet and took a job working for a software development company, rather than swan off to make his fortune working in a profession that was somewhat unrelated to his education.

It's an issue many graduates are faced with. After spending tens of thousands of dollars on their education, they are inevitably drawn to the idea of making as much money as possible to pay off their loans, even if it means leaving the field of engineering to do so.

What brought this issue home to me again this week was a recent article in "The Dartmouth", the daily student newspaper of Dartmouth College, which just happens to be America's oldest college newspaper.

The article -- which was written by Hannah Wang -- detailed the development of an Android application that uses data captured by the camera in a smartphone to analyze a person's driving habits. To do so, the application analyzes drivers' physical motions, such as head turning and blinking rates.

The application came about as the result of a project by a chap called Thomas Bao who graduated this year from the college. Apparently, Bao began the project knowing little about machine learning, computer vision or Java. But that didn't stop him from studying the subject rigorously enough to develop the application.

Since then, Bing You, a visiting researcher from Taiwan's Academia Sinica, has integrated Bao's driver-side app into a larger project called CarSafe, which uses the dual cameras on a smart phone to detect both driver-side and road-side information to alert drivers about potentially dangerous situations, such as unsafe following distances.

Having now left the college, however, the talented Bao has waved goodbye to the engineering profession. According to the article, he is now working at Evolution Capital Management, a hedge fund based in Hawaii.

Now the article, of course, doesn't specifically say why Bao chose to do so. It may have been for financial reasons, or it could have been because he is fond of big wave surfing. But whatever the reason, I think it's a shame that Bao and many other talented folk like him don’t remain in the engineering business like my nephew chose to do.


1. Professor creates phone app for safer driving habits

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Guns N' Reshoring

A Michigan State University (East Lansing, MI, USA) academic has authored a new study that claims that many US firms are moving or considering moving their manufacturing operations back to domestic soil from overseas.

According to Tobias Schoenherr, an assistant professor of supply chain management, rising labor costs in emerging countries, high oil prices and increasing transportation costs and global risks such as political instability are fueling the trend.

"Going overseas is not the panacea that it was thought of just a decade or so ago. Companies have realized the challenges and thus are moving back to the US," says Schoenherr.

Schoenherr's study found that 40 per cent of manufacturing firms believe there is an increased movement of "reshoring" -- or moving manufacturing plants back to the US from countries such as China and India. While the results differed by industry, the trend was led by aerospace and defense, industrial parts and equipment, electronics, and medical and surgical supplies.

The study, which was sponsored by the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals and based on a survey of 319 firms, also found that nearly 38 per cent of companies indicated that their direct competitors have already reshored.

In addition to rising costs and global risks, Schoenherr said companies are concerned with the erosion of intellectual property overseas and product quality problems, which can be difficult to fix when dealing with multiple time zones and language and cultural barriers.

Rob Glassburn, the Vice President of Operations at 3D Engineering Solutions (Cincinnati, OH, USA), would be the first to agree with Schoenherr. In a recent blog, Glassburn described how his company had recently been called in to reverse engineer parts for a popular airsoft gun maker that once manufactured its products abroad. And that, according to Glassburn, was a direct consequence of such intellectual property theft.

Specifically, Glassburn wrote, problems arose when the particular gun maker learned that its offshore manufacturer was using its proprietary tooling to "back door sell" guns made with its own equipment. To curb the practice, it closed down operations and moved manufacturing back to the US, which helped secure 300 domestic jobs.

Sadly, however, no CAD models or prints of the gun parts were accessible when the gun maker returned production back to the US, and that's why 3D Engineering Solutions was called in. By employing the company's 3D laser scanning technology to digitize the assembly of air gun parts, the company was then able to create tooling to manufacture parts in the US once more.

One can only hope that if the trend to reshore continues, it will also mean more business for those machine builders in the vision industry who develop systems to automate the process of inspecting those products as well!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

See-through soil simplifies root imaging

As anyone who knows me will testify, I'm about as fond of gardening as I am of golf. My ideal garden would either be covered over with concrete or short pile synthetic turf, thereby eliminating the need to maintain a lawn or take care of any plants and shrubs.

Despite that fact, I'm always intrigued to read how researchers and scientists across the world are using innovative image processing systems to analyze the behavior of plants.

There's no doubt that by studying the growth of the roots of plants, and determining what factors influence it, scientists might develop hardier variety of crops that might be more resistant to disease and climate change.

In February this year, one team of researchers at the University of Nottingham (Nottingham, UK) was awarded a 3.5m Euro grant to do just that. They plan to image wheat roots in a move that will enable them to select new agricultural varieties that are more efficient at water and nutrient uptake.

To do so, the researchers there plan to use X-ray Micro Computed Tomography to capture images of the shape and branching patterns of roots in soil. Those images will then be fed into the researchers "RooTrak" software which overcomes the problem of distinguishing between roots and other elements in the soil.

Now, however, discerning the roots of the plants from the soil surrounding them could become a lot easier, thanks to a team from the James Hutton Institute (Aberdeen, Scotland) and the University of Abertay (Dundee, Scotland) who have developed a see-through soil based on a synthetic composite known as Nafion.

They claim that the product is very similar to real soil in terms of physical and biological variables, in terms of its water retention, its ability to hold nutrients and its capability for sustaining plant growth.

Lionel Dupuy, a theoretical biologist in the ecological sciences group at the James Hutton Institute, said that the transparent soil could be used by researchers to study the spread and transmission of soil borne pathogens, screen the root systems of a range of genotypes, as well as understand how plants or microbes access nutrients that are heterogeneously distributed in the soil.

While the formulation of the new soil may well have taken the scientists two years to perfect, to me, the real lesson to be learned from its development is the degree of lateral thinking that the researchers employed to solve the problem of how best to capture images of roots in soil.

Rather than just throw complex hardware and software at the problem, they took a completely different approach by creating a new media that may ultimately enable researchers to image the roots of plants using vision systems that are a lot simpler than those that are in use today.


1. Software gets to the root of the problem

A team of researchers at the University of Nottingham (Nottingham, UK) has developed image analysis software that can automatically distinguish plant roots from other materials found in soil.

2. Robotic image-processing system analyzes plant growth

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (Madison, WI, USA) have developed an image-processing system that captures time-lapse images of how plants grow.

3. Cameras get to the root of global warming

Researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Oak Ridge, TN) are to use a system of minirhizotrons to examine the effects on elevated temperatures and levels of carbon dioxide on the roots of plants in wetlands.