TOKYO — Imaging technology is no longer just about the never-ending megapixel race among CMOS image sensors. As market focus shifts to "vision" processing, the industry has drawn a new battle line -- over how fast and how accurately a processor can capture, dissect, and interpret data in a manner comprehensible to an embedded system.
In short, the whole concept of who's watching whom has flipped.
In the embedded vision world, what matters is not so much you, the photographer, who wants to take better photos; instead, the technology now exists to cater to embedded systems that need to watch you, recognize who you are, analyze your behavior, and process data they think you need.
You might call this just the plain reality of technology progress in machine vision or computer vision. Maybe so. But I confess that some of the embedded vision plots hatched by marketers today are disturbing enough to make me cringe.
None of this stuff, of course, is more worrisome than the NSA's electronic spying programs. But the very notion of a bunch of sensors physically watching me -- solely to make a commercial gain at my expense -- gives me, at least, a slight case of the willies. At worst, it's a reminder of the increasingly Orwellian society we already live in.
Over a cup of coffee in Tokyo, I recently sat down with Tom Wilson, vice president of business development at CogniVue, a Quebec-based embedded vision technology developer. Wilson tried to convince me that automotive isn't the only market being targeted by vision processing technology developers like CogniVue.
Here are a few examples he shared with me -- in terms of what comes next with embedded vision:
- Drive a car on a deserted road in the dark. Street lamps -- normally switched off -- light up the road just in front of your car, as you move forward. As soon as they sense your car is leaving, they go off. (Yeah, I know: an evening's drive through The Twilight Zone.)
- Walk in front of a digital sign -- a gigantic electronic display in a public space. The sign, even before you notice it, recognizes your gender and age, then quickly changes the ad message -- to fit your demographic profile -- as you look at it. (Yeah, I know: shades of Minority Report.)
- Smartphones that can recognize your hand gestures, or that can do face recognitions to help you tag images (by informing you who you are seeing, and whose pictures you are taking, and even uploading to social networks.)
- A set-top box embedded with eyes in your living room identifies who is watching what program. It sends the information to a backend server, triggering a digital product placement in a TV program. (Right. Saw that in Fahrenheit 451.)
Among these examples, what ticked me off was the last item about a set-top box with eyes. Of course, for someone who's known Kinect (a motion sensing input device by Microsoft for the Xbox 360 video game console and Windows PCs), I probably shouldn't have been so surprised. But I needed further clarification over what it exactly does.
"Say you are watching Friends. The set-top box knows you're watching it and you actually like Pepsi instead of Coke," explained CogniVue’s Wilson. The backend server, then, can digitally insert a Pepsi can, replacing a Coke, in Monica's living room.
Click here to watch Mirriad's video explaining how its services work.
Wilson pointed out that Mirriad, a developer of ad platforms, is one company working on such a project. "The plan is to couple this type of ad insertion with viewer preference," he explained. In fact, a set-top box with eyes isn't such a far-fetched idea. Mirriad recently signed a deal with Pace, a set-top box vendor, to trial this in the UK, according to Wilson.
While explaining the digital product placement scheme, Wilson joked that this is partly why he doesn't own a TV. But he made sure that I understood the far-reaching ramifications of embedded vision applications and how the competition among embedded vision IP vendors -- both software and hardware -- has been escalating in recent years.