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

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brought him the electoral votes needed to win the Presidency. The Times wanted to juxtapose pictures of Gore and Bush on the next morning’s front page. They had photographs from Gore’s concession speech, but Bush didn’t make a public appearance until minutes before the paper’s deadline, meaning that videotaped TV coverage was all the paper had to work with. “They didn’t want to seem like a liberal, Democratic-leaning paper, with a good image of Gore next to a blurry video of Bush,” recounts Teodosio. “But they were able to run the video of Bush through our software and clean it up and run the two images side by side, above the fold.”

The Times is still a customer today. But it didn’t take long after the 2000 election for the startup to sell its system to nearly every other media company big enough to need it. So the company started looking for new users—including the Boston Police Department, which turned to Salient Stills for pro bono help analyzing drug-store surveillance tapes during a wave of Oxycontin robberies in the summer of 2001. “We always knew there was potential in the law enforcement market, where you’ve got video and you need to make it look better so that you can ascertain something,” says Teodosio. “But in the Boston Police Department, we had a our first real live case study. In exchange for doing this video work for them, we picked their brains about what they wanted to do and what they needed. They effectively became our first law-enforcement customer.”

And then came September 11, 2001. Two of the four planes involved in that day’s suicide attacks departed from Boston’s Logan Airport, and conspirators Mohamed Atta and Abdul-Azzia Al-Omari had flown into Logan earlier that morning from the Portland Jetport in Maine. Both airports fell under the jurisdiction of the FBI’s Boston field office. “We brought a system over to their office and they used it to create some of the images that you know of Mohamed Atta from the Portland ATM video and the airport security tapes,” says Teodosio. “That was really the moment we changed focus.”

Since 2001, there’s been endless discussion (and considerable federal R&D spending) around face recognition software, biometrics, and other advanced surveillance and security technologies. But even now, very little of this technology is ready for daily use. Salient Stills, meanwhile, has concentrated on making its software as flexible and user-friendly as possible for the people in the trenches—police investigators whose agencies are often too small to have dedicated video forensics facilities and who have to deal with video evidence from diverse real-world sources, much of it very low in quality.

And that’s where Teodosio’s Media Lab training and her work at Apple come in. At the Media Lab, Teodosio was part of the “News in the Future” group led by Walter Bender (recently of XO Laptop and Sugar fame). The group believed that for digital newspapers, which might be viewed on handheld devices that lacked bandwidth or processing power to show video, TV news images would need to be condensed in some way. So for her 1992 master’s thesis, Teodosio developed software that could translate a moving image—say, video from a panning or zooming camera—into a single high-resolution frame, the “salient still,” that synthesized all of the key information over some period of time.

After MIT, Teodosio joined Apple’s advanced technology group in Cupertino, CA, where … 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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