Combating the “CSI Effect”: Boston’s Salient Stills Extracts Evidence from Grainy Surveillance Video
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video processing was also high on the agenda. “It was a great place to be, because there was a very prominent culture of being concerned about user experience,” says Teodosio. “That work was as highly regarded as the underlying scientific work. And I think I learned a lot about the value of putting very hard work into the user interface.”
Ever since Teodosio returned to Boston in 1998 to turn her master’s thesis work into a commercial product, she says, her goal has been “keeping it simple”—for example, arraying multiple frames on a computer display in such a way that crucial moments jump out at the user instantly; enabling users to zoom in on portions of a video using a mouse’s scroll wheel; allowing quick drag-and-drop assembly of new video presentations from accumulated clips; and showing filtered or newly assembled video nearly instantaneously, without long waits for rendering.
Teodosio says such design simplifications have been “critical to our success,” especially among investigators confronted with a jumble of video technologies and formats. While many commercial premises have video surveillance systems, they’re often poorly maintained, and many businesses install them merely as deterrents without paying much attention to the resolution of the video cameras, the format in which video files are stored, or other factors that will determine whether the images are actually usable as evidence.
Interlacing is one common problem: older video systems scan and record every odd-numbered line in a video, then every even-numbered line, then start over. If a camera, VCR, or DVR is out of calibration, the lines can get mixed up, making images fuzzy. But using VideoFocus Pro, investigators can run a “de-interlacing” algorithm that removes fugitive lines with a single click. Teodosio showed me video from a bank heist where de-interlacing helped to make it clear that the perpetrator had a beard.
The software also helps investigators deal with video stored in proprietary formats that can be played as executable files but can’t be opened using standard video editing software. According to Teodosio, the surveillance video industry, unlike makers of consumer still and video cameras, has never bothered to adopt common formatting standards for digital files. For these cases, VideoFocus Pro offers a video-capture feature that, in essence, makes a new recording of whatever is playing on a computer.
Salient Stills’ software isn’t going to help investigators make out a terrorist’s face from his reflection in a droplet of sweat on a hostage’s cheek. But it is helping law enforcement agencies catch and convict everyday crooks. And while the company’s turn toward crime-fighting after 9/11 was “not something I expected,” says Teodosio, she thinks the company’s products may gradually shift back toward the mass-media world. For example, she points to the growing phenomenon of police agencies turning to the public for help by posting surveillance and crime-witness videos on YouTube.
“So much video now is coming in from handheld devices, and there is so much connectivity between computers, that I think our next directions are going to be very exciting,” she says. “We have so much expertise in creating image-processing applications that are easy to use. Now we want to take it to the next level of making it networked, getting the tools into even smaller agencies, and letting customers share information with each other and with the general public in a trusted way.”
That would take additional investment—and so far, the company has been making do on revenues from VideoFocus Pro (the software costs $5,000 to $30,000 per installation) and a $3 million venture pot collected shortly after its launch. “To properly do a networked or software-as-a-service version of our system we’ll need to find a new strategic partner, or go back out for funding,” Teodosio says. And that may happen sooner rather than later. “We want to take it to the next level.”
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