Combating the “CSI Effect”: Boston’s Salient Stills Extracts Evidence from Grainy Surveillance Video

Generally, I’m a big fan of the CSI shows (CSI: Miami, CSI: NY, and of course, the original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation), because the heroes are scientists. Who would have expected a trio of dramas about a bunch of wonky forensics experts to stay atop the ratings for years? But I do have a pet peeve about the shows: they routinely exaggerate the power of the image-enhancement software available to crime labs. CSI: Miami took this to a ridiculous and irresponsible extreme a couple of seasons ago, with an episode in which the Miami-Dade PD’s super-sleuths isolated a frame in a surveillance video, then blew up the image to such huge proportions that they were able to read a car’s license plate number in a reflection on a passerby’s eyeball.

What a lot of TV viewers probably don’t understand is that simply zooming in on a tiny feature in a digital image doesn’t reveal hidden information. It just makes the existing pixels bigger and fuzzier. But when influential TV shows mix science fiction with science facts, it can give average citizens—including jury members—unrealistic expectations about the capabilities of law-enforcement agencies. Indeed, according to USA Today, the “CSI effect” has made it harder for prosecutors to win convictions in the absence of spectacular physical evidence.

But there’s a company right here in Boston that’s correcting misperceptions about video enhancement technology—and at the same time pushing its real capabilities forward. It’s called Salient Stills, and it’s helping police departments and other government agencies around the world wring as much evidence as they can from surveillance recordings—which are usually far more blurry, jerky, and jittery than the videos portrayed in detective shows.

“Unfortunately, not only are juries and judges under these misapprehensions, but a lot of our customers need to be educated as well, so we spend a fair amount of time talking about the difference between what happens in Hollywood and what happens on your desktop,” says Salient Stills founder and CEO Laura Teodosio, a former Apple researcher who was one of the first people to get a degree from the MIT Media Lab in the early 1990s. “But once people begin to understand what can be done, they really start to appreciate it.”

Salient Stills VideoFocus Pro 3 ScreenshotLast month, the company rolled out the latest version of its flagship product, VideoFocus Pro, a Windows program that can take in video from almost any source—say, an old VCR-based surveillance system in a convenience store, a modern DVR-based system at a bank, or even a crime victim’s cell phone camera—and help users clean it up and sift through it, frame by frame, for key details.

In the past, says Teodosio, many police personnel have tried to process crime-scene videos by kludging together separate tools such as Adobe Premiere (for video editing) and Adobe Photoshop (for cleaning up still images). But VideoFocus Pro handles most of the same tasks as both of those programs, and adds specialized features that become crucial when surveillance video is being used to identify criminal suspects—and when it’s likely to end up as legal evidence in court cases. That includes software filters that correct common video artifacts such as interlacing (more on that below) and highlight hard-to-see features in nighttime shots. VideoFocus Pro also creates audit trails documenting exactly how a video file has been modified at each stage of processing, which helps to maintain the chain of evidence. “All of the things most law enforcement customers would need to do have been brought into one application, without the overhead and the complexity of things they don’t need to do,” says Teodosio.

Salient Stills’ 10 programmers, who recently escaped rising rents in Boston’s Fort Point Channel area to occupy a fourth-floor loft in Brighton, work with customers at dozens of city, county, and state police agencies, as well as national agencies like the FBI, CIA, DEA, and NSA and quite a few foreign organizations, such as Japan’s Public Security Intelligence Agency. But the company didn’t start out catering to law enforcement. When Teodosio founded the company in 1998, the main idea was to help big media companies create print-quality still images from video footage.

Salient Stills’ very first customer was The New York Times, which put the software to a dramatic test the night of November 7, 2000, when George W. Bush’s razor-thin margin over Al Gore in Florida appeared to have … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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