Mar 26, 2003

Evil-doers beware! Space scientists are on the case...

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Evil-doers Beware!


NASA scientists have invented a new video technology that helps police track down criminals.




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March 26, 2003: FBI and other law enforcement officers, whose investigations are normally down-to-Earth, recently have been seeking the help of two NASA scientists who study the Sun and storms like hurricanes.


Why are specialists from such different worlds working together?

Right: Inventors Paul Meyer (left) and David Hathaway view a license plate number revealed using the award-winning Video Image Stabilization and Registration (VISAR) software.

The NASA researchers--using their expertise and equipment for analyzing satellite video--have created a new crime-fighting software tool called VISAR. Short for Video Image Stabilization and Registration, VISAR transforms dark, jittery images captured by security systems and video cameras in police cars into clear, stable images that can reveal clues about crimes. This new technology is expected to benefit medical research and improve home entertainment, too.




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No wonder NASA has selected VISAR as its Commercial Invention of the Year for 2002.

VISAR inventors David Hathaway and Paul Meyer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center didn't start out as crime-fighters. Hathaway, a solar physicist, is usually busy studying images of violent explosions on the Sun, and Meyer, an atmospheric scientist, examines hazardous weather conditions on Earth. "At NASA, we routinely take satellite images of storm clouds and enhance them to see what is going on in the atmosphere," notes 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."

The scientists' foray into the world of forensics began when they helped the FBI analyze video of the bombing that killed two people and injured hundreds more at the 1996 Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta. Hathaway and Meyer successfully clarified nighttime videotapes made with handheld camcorders, revealing important details about the bomb and the explosion.


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Hathaway and Meyer have since worked with the police and FBI on dozens of criminal cases, and with each case they've refined and improved the VISAR technology. Now it's ready to be transferred to companies that produce video enhancement systems for law enforcement, the military and even home computers. (Intergraph Corporation of
Huntsville, AL, includes VISAR on their Video AnalystTM workstations for law enforcement and military applications.)


"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," says Hathaway.

For example: Hathaway 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. "Her killer has since been tried and convicted," says Hathaway. "The video was key evidence used in his capture."

Above: Video made with a handheld camcorder from police cars chasing criminals can result in shaky footage, making license plates unreadable (bottom). Using VISAR software, NASA scientists enhanced the video and produced a clear, sharp image. (Editor's note: the driver of this vehicle is a NASA employee, not a real criminal.) [more photos]

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," says Stephen Planck, associate professor for the Casey Institute. "After NASA enhanced the video, we could see cell movements inside the eye that were undetectable before."


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Hathaway believes the biggest potential market could be home consumers, who would use VISAR to improve the quality of homemade movies. Home videos are often shot by amateurs who are just learning how to use their cameras as they're shooting. The resulting quality can be poor. Although many camcorders have built-in anti-jitter devices, there are currently no devices to fix problems having to do with zoom and tilt.


Right: The skier seems to glide across the water when video made with a digital hand-held camcorder (below) is enhanced using VISAR (above). [more videos]

"If you've ever used a video camera, you've probably hit the wrong end of the zoom button," Hathaway states wryly. "VISAR can be used to correct these mistakes afterward."

VISAR would also allow people to give their homemade videos movie-style special effects. "VISAR would be great for all those Steven Spielberg wanna-bees who want to make a video of their kids being chased by dinosaurs." VISAR would allow them to determine precisely where someone is in the frame and add a layer of special effects correlated to that position. Using VISAR, you can invite a digital T-Rex to your next birthday party!

Home video special effects. Medical research. Crime fighting. Says Hathaway: "Not bad for a couple of space scientists."




Credits & Contacts
Author: Dr. Tony Phillips
Responsible NASA official: John M. Horack
Production Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips
Curator: Bryan Walls
Media Relations: Steve Roy
The Science and Technology Directorate at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center sponsors the Science@NASA web sites. The mission of Science@NASA is to help the public understand how exciting NASA research is and to help NASA scientists fulfill their outreach responsibilities.
more information


Shake, Rattle & Zoom -- 1999 Science@NASA story about VISAR

NASA Selects Commercial & Government Inventions of the Year

Below: 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 Hathaway and Meyer 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. [more photos]


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VISAR licensing-- NASA is offering consumer software companies the opportunity to license its much sought after video image stabilization and registration (VISAR) technology. See also NASA/MSFC Technology Transfer.

More VISAR pictures and video -- from the NASA/MSFC newsroom


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