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Surveillance technologies get more powerful

June 9, 2010
Courtesy of U.S. Department of
Homeland Security, Hebrew
University of Jerusalem
and World Science staff

Video sur­veil­lance is getting more ef­fec­tive—or in­vas­ive, if you’re in­clined to see it that way. Two new tech­nolo­gies could lead, their de­vel­op­ers say, to dra­mat­ic in­creases in sec­u­rity of­ficers’ abi­lity to track alleged ter­ror­ists or crim­i­nals.

A new U.S. cam­era sys­tem pro­vides a nearly 360-degree view of an ar­ea in un­prec­e­dent­ed de­tail. And a new Is­rae­li tech­nol­o­gy lets peo­ple re­view­ing sur­veil­lance vid­e­os by­pass hours’ worth of use­less da­ta so they can ze­ro in on events of in­ter­est.

I­SIS takes new video-camera and image-stitching tech­nol­o­gy and bolts it to a ceil­ing, mounts it on a roof, or fas­tens it to a truck-mounted tel­e­scop­ing mast. (Cour­te­sy DHS S&T)


“We’ve seen that ter­ror­ists are de­ter­mined to do us har­m,” said John For­tune of the U.S. Home­land Se­cur­ity de­part­men­t’s Sci­ence and Tech­nol­o­gy Di­rec­to­rate, which de­vel­oped the wide-view im­ag­ing sys­tem. He called it “a great ex­am­ple of one way we can im­prove our se­cur­ity by lever­ag­ing our strengths.”

Is­ra­el and the Un­ited States are al­lies lead­ing the charge in what some of their lead­ers call a war on ter­ror, though ma­ny crit­ics at­trib­ute darker aims to that “war,” calling it for ex­ample a cam­paign against Mus­lims or a pre­text to tram­ple civ­il rights.

Re­gard­less of one’s view, tech­nolo­gies de­signed to aid in that cam­paign are ad­vanc­ing.

Home­land Se­cur­ity’s Sci­ence and Tech­nol­o­gy Di­rec­to­rate has de­vel­oped what it calls the Im­ag­ing Sys­tem for Im­mer­sive Sur­veil­lance, or ISIS, a device that can be bolt­ed to a ceil­ing, mounted on a roof, or fas­tened to a truck-mount­ed tel­e­scop­ing mast.

Like a bug-eyed fish­eye lens, ISIS takes in an ex­trem­ely wide view. But where­as a typ­i­cal fish­eye lens dis­torts the im­age and can only pro­vide lim­it­ed res­o­lu­tion, vi­deo from ISIS is per­fectly de­tailed, edge-to-edge. That’s be­cause the vi­deo is made from a se­ries of in­di­vid­ual cam­er­as stitched in­to a sin­gle, live view.

“Cov­er­age this sweep­ing, with de­tail this fi­ne, re­quires a very high pix­el coun­t,” said For­tune, pro­gram man­ag­er of the di­rec­torate’s In­fra­struc­ture and Geo­phys­i­cal Di­vi­sion, “I­SIS has a res­o­lu­tion ca­pa­bil­ity of 100 mega­pix­els.” That’s as de­tailed as 50 full-HDTV movies play­ing at once, ac­cord­ing to For­tune, with op­ti­cal de­tail to spare. A view­er can zoom in close with­out los­ing clar­ity.

The stitch­ing to­geth­er of sev­er­al im­ages is­n’t in it­self cutting-edge tech­nol­o­gy—but do­ing so with vid­e­o, in real time, is new, For­tune ex­plained. And a un­ique in­ter­face al­lows main­te­nance of the full field of view, while a fo­cal point of choice can be mag­ni­fied.

Oth­er tricks will be pro­vided by a suite of soft­ware ap­plica­t­ions, he said. One can defi­ne a sac­ro­sanct “ex­clu­sion zone,” a part of the view­ing area for which ISIS pro­vides an alert the mo­ment it’s breached. An­oth­er lets the op­er­a­tor pick a tar­get—a per­son, a pack­age, or a pickup truck­—and a de­tailed view­ing win­dow will tag it and fol­low it, au­to­mat­ic­ally pan­ning and tilt­ing as needed.

Mean­while, tech­nol­o­gy de­vel­oped by the He­brew Uni­vers­ity of Je­ru­sa­lem aims to re­duce the of­ten days’ or weeks’ worth of vi­deo that must be re­viewed from a sin­gle cam­era, a lim­ita­t­ion that leads much sur­veil­lance vi­deo not to be checked at all. 

Sur­veil­lance cam­er­as al­ready play a key role for Is­ra­el, which pro­tects its ter­ri­to­ry with a “se­cur­ity fence” in­cor­po­rat­ing vi­deo cam­er­as. Con­tro­vers­ially, the bar­ri­er al­so locks in Is­rae­li con­trol over land Arabs say is stol­en from them; the rele­vant parts of the wall have been de­clared il­legal by the In­ter­na­tion­al Court of Just­ice. The Un­ited States al­so uses sur­veil­lance cam­er­as to re­duce il­le­gal im­migra­t­ion from Mex­ico.

Computer scientist Shlomo Pe­leg at the He­brew Uni­vers­ity has de­vel­oped soft­ware that pro­vides a “syn­op­sis” of recorded vid­e­o. It’s de­signed to gen­er­ate a very short vi­deo pre­serv­ing the es­sen­tial ac­ti­vi­ties of the orig­i­nal vi­deo cap­tured over a very long time pe­ri­od. For ex­am­ple, a vi­deo co­vering a full day can be sum­ma­rized in a syn­op­sis only a few min­utes long.

Stud­ies in­di­cate that hu­man op­er­a­tors lose their at­ten­tion af­ter about 20 min­utes when watch­ing such vid­e­os, Pe­leg said.

The vi­deo syn­op­sis sep­a­rates be­tween the stat­ic back­ground and the mov­ing ob­jects, Pe­leg ex­plained. The syn­op­sis is made pos­si­ble by sim­ul­ta­ne­ously pre­sent­ing mul­ti­ple events that oc­curred at dif­fer­ent times. The us­er view all events in a very short time and, when nec­es­sary, can re­vert to the orig­i­nal vi­deo for fur­ther ex­amina­t­ion. For his work, Pe­leg was on June 9 named a win­ner of this year’s Kaye In­nova­t­ion Award at the uni­vers­ity.


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Two new surveillance technologies could lead, their developers say, to dramatic increases in the effectiveness of equipment designed ostensibly to protect against terrorists. A new U.S. camera system provides a nearly 360-degree view of an area in unprecedented detail. A new Israeli technology lets people reviewing surveillance videos bypass hours’ worth of useless data so they can zero in on events of interest. “We’ve seen that terrorists are determined to do us harm,” said John Fortune of the U.S. Homeland Security department’s Science and Technology Directorate, which developed the wide-view imaging system. He called it “a great example of one way we can improve our security by leveraging our strengths.” Israel and the United States are allies leading the charge in what many of their citizens call a war on terrorism, though many critics attribute darker motives to that “war,” calling it for example a campaign against Muslims, a grab for oil or a pretext to infringe on civil rights. Regardless of one’s view, technologies designed to aid in that campaign are advancing. Whether they’re used against real criminals or simply for privacy invasion, improved surveillance cameras are likely with us to stay. Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, where Fortune works, has developed what it calls the Imaging System for Immersive Surveillance, or ISIS, which takes new video camera and image-stitching technology and bolts it to a ceiling, mounts it on a roof, or fastens it to a truck-mounted telescoping mast. Like a bug-eyed fisheye lens, ISIS sees very wide. But whereas a typical fisheye lens distorts the image and can only provide limited resolution, video from ISIS is perfectly detailed, edge-to-edge. That’s because the video is made from a series of individual cameras stitched into a single, live view. “Coverage this sweeping, with detail this fine, requires a very high pixel count,” said Fortune, program manager of the directorate’s Infrastructure and Geophysical Division, “ISIS has a resolution capability of 100 megapixels.” That’s as detailed as 50 full-HDTV movies playing at once, according to Fortune, with optical detail to spare. A viewer can zoom in close without losing clarity. The stitching together of several images isn’t in itself cutting-edge technology—but doing so with video, in real time, is new, Fortune explained. And a unique interface allows maintenance of the full field of view, while a focal point of choice can be magnified. Other tricks will be provided by a suite of software applications called video analytics, he said. One app can define a sacrosanct “exclusion zone,” a part of the viewing zone for which ISIS provides an alert the moment it’s breached. Another lets the operator pick a target—a person, a package, or a pickup truck—and the detailed viewing window will tag it and follow it, automatically panning and tilting as needed. Meanwhile, technology developed by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem aims to reduce the often days’ or weeks’ worth of video that has to be reviewed from a single camera, a limitation that often leads much surveillance video not to be reviewed at all. Surveillance cameras already play a key role for Israel, which protects its territory with a “security fence” that incorporates video cameras. The barrier also secures Israeli control over land Arabs say is stolen from them. The United States also uses surveillance cameras to reduce illegal immigration. Researcher Shlomo Peleg at the Hebrew University has developed computer software that provides a “synopsis” of recorded video. It’s designed to generate a very short video preserving the essential activities of the original video captured over a very long time period. For example, a video covering a full day can be summarized in a synopsis only a few minutes long. Studies indicate that human operators lose their attention after about 20 minutes when watching such videos, Peleg said. The video synopsis separates between the static background and the moving objects, Peleg explained. The synopsis is made possible by simultaneously presenting multiple events that occurred at different times. The user view all events in a very short time and, when necessary, can revert to the original video for further examination. For his work, Peleg was on June 9 named a winner of this year’s Kaye Innovation Award at the university.