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With video search, police won’t be the same again

india Updated: Sep 28, 2008 22:43 IST
N Madhavan

Remember how closed-circuit TV helped US law enforcers some of the bombers in the 9/11 attacks of 2001 that destroyed the World Trade Towers in New York? After recent serial blasts in Delhi, the business of closed circuit TVs in sensitive areas is again in focus. Though authorities here have not progressed too much in using CCTVs since 2001, technology indeed has, and I saw a fine demo to that effect in Bangalore last week.

We all know Google has advanced the Internet search business to a great extent, but search has gone further than what the company has gone shown so far. The Bangalore-based lab of IBM India demonstrated digital video surveillance – what they call smart surveillance – that marries advanced search capabilities which go beyond searching of text, and marries it with closed-circuit videos and always-on communication networks with amazing results.

In the old-world CCTV, one had to physically keep an eye or playback tapes to look for anything suspicious, often taking hours or days – perhaps an eternity – to find that needle in a virtual haystack. No longer. You can now look for visual objects in an image through search technology. If, for instance, you are looking for a man with a red-shirt, the search technology will round up all slices of video where there are men in red shirts and show up a visual shortlist. This is like sending a posse of policemen to round up some usual suspects – in this case, strangers included.

You can take this further by, say, looking for anyone who leaves an object behind – typical in cases involving time bombs or other suspicious devices. You can also look for objects based on size.

IBM calls these Entity Analytics Solutions, and a key aspect of this is that a computerised trigger can be built into alert authorities. For instance, if somebody leaves an object behind, or if somebody wearing a dress that authorities are looking for is in the visual field, the system sends an alert message instantly, without real people being involved. In areas like law enforcement, security and anti-money laundering activities this can be of immense help. In fact, IBM retrospectively did a post-mortem demo of the 9/11 incidents using its technology developed later.

All that apart, from the commoner's point of view, it is clear that search is going well beyond text and caption-based picture searches to searches for real voice and images. Sooner or later, what is being used in a limited way is bound to become a phenomenon on the public Internet.

Imagine the day when you can find out by a search if a Bollywood music director lifted a tune from an Arab singer. Or finding out if a socialite repeated a red party dress! But I am sure technology can be put to more useful stuff.