Evil-doers Beware! Space Scientists are on the Case
Why are specialists from such different worlds working together?
The NASA researchers -- using their expertise and equipment for analyzing satellite video -- created technology that can dramatically improve TV images including crime scene videos. With law enforcement officers looking over their shoulders, the scientists use their computer software to turn dark, jittery images captured by home video, security systems and video cameras in police cars into clearer, stable images that reveal clues about crimes.
Above: NASA inventors Paul Meyer (left) and David Hathaway view a license plate number revealed by using the Video Image Stabilization and Registration -- VISAR -- software to improve poor quality footage. Meyer and Hathaway invented the software at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
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Since their first case with the FBI, Hathaway and Meyer have worked over the years to refine the VISAR technology, improving it so that it is now ready to be transferred to companies that produce video enhancement systems for law enforcement, the military and even home computers.
By the end of this year, the FBI and other criminal investigators will be able to use the NASA technology at their own stations. The NASA scientists' invention -- called Video Image Stabilization and Registration, or VISAR - will be available in a video tracking and enhancement system developed by Intergraph Government Solutions, a subsidiary of Intergraph Corp. of Huntsville. The company has signed a licensing agreement with NASA to use VISAR in its Video Analyst System, which offers broadcast-quality analysis features on Intel-based hardware.
"After analyzing crime video for detectives and seeing the horrible details of some of these crimes, it gives me great satisfaction that police can use NASA technology to put murderers behind bars," said Hathaway.
Hathaway, for example, helped enhance security camera videotape made during the kidnapping of a Minnesota teenager. In an intensive effort, the FBI and police worked with Hathaway to identify the abductor and try to find the teenager before she was harmed. Police now believe she was killed. This summer, the tape was used as evidence in the trial of a man convicted of the murder.
The VISAR system has proved so useful because it is able to correct the effects of jitter, rotation and zoom from frame to frame in video. Once corrected, the registered video images may then be combined to produce clearer images.
"At NASA, we routinely take satellite images of storm clouds and enhance them to see what is going on in the atmosphere," said Meyer. "Looking for clues about what is happening in a storm is similar to being a detective and finding out what took place at a crime scene."
Commercial interest in licensing the Marshall invention is based on its ability to do more than just remove noise or "snow" from videos. The software also corrects for horizontal and vertical camera motion, as well as rotation and zoom effects. It produces clearer images of moving objects, smoothes jagged edges and enhances still images.
Video imagery for defense applications will also be improved through another licensing agreement between NASA and BARCO Inc. Display Systems, of Duluth, Ga. The company is incorporating VISAR into its new computer hardware, designed for real-time video image enhancement, stabilization, and tracking.
Right: Video made with a handheld camcorder from police cars chasing criminals can result in shaky footage, making license plates unreadable (bottom). When NASA scientists at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., enhanced the video with the VISAR software, they produced a clear, sharp image, (top) allowing the license plate to be read. (Editor's note: the driver of this vehicle is not a real criminal, but a NASA employee who assumed the role of a scofflaw for demonstration purposes.) [more photos]
"The reconnaissance video imagery made by military vehicles, aircraft and ships traveling in harsh, rugged environments is often shaky and unstable," said Michael Garner, a BARCO business analyst. "Our defense industry customers will be pleased with the improvements NASA's software makes to reconnaissance and surveillance video."
These two licenses are for exclusive use in Intergraph's and BARCO's existing or new real-time hardware products. Now, NASA is seeking consumer software companies to license VISAR for home computers, said Sammy Nabors of NASA's Technology Transfer Department at the Marshall Center.
Above: VISAR can reveal valuable clues from videos taken in extremely low light. The single frame (left) taken at night, was brightened, enhancing details and reducing noise, or "snow." To further overcome the video's defects in one frame, scientists at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., used VISAR software to add information from multiple frames to reveal a person. To create the clarified image (right), images from less than a second of videotape were added together. Photo: David Hathaway, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. [more photos]
For instance, to evaluate the use of the video enhancement software for medical purposes, Meyer and Hathaway are working with the Casey Eye Institute at the Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland through a NASA Space Act Agreement. Officials at the institute have called the initial video evaluations "awesome." Through partnerships with the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health, scientists at the Portland institute use an innovative technique to study video of cell movements in the eye associated with immune system diseases.
"Working with the NASA software, we can answer questions that advance our understanding of processes unique to the eye and our understanding of how the immune system works," said Stephen R. Planck, associate professor for the Casey Institute. "After NASA enhanced the video, we could see cell movements inside the eye that were undetectable before."
The two Marshall Center scientists have completed test video analyses that show their patent-pending technology can improve home video - an area that may have the biggest market potential. To encourage companies to manufacture and distribute VISAR software for home computers, NASA recently asked companies to submit license applications and commercialization plans to the Marshall Technology Transfer Department.
"It's amazing to me that software we invented has the potential to be used everyday in home computers across America," said Meyer.
VISAR licensing-- NASA is offering consumer software companies the opportunity to license its much sought after video image stabilization and registration (VISAR) technology.
NASA/MSFC Technology Transfer
Shake, Rattle & Zoom -- 1999 Science@NASA story about VISAR
More VISAR pictures and video -- from the NASA/Marshall newsroom
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