Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have completed a
prototype device that can block digital-camera function in a given
area. Commercial versions of the technology could be used to thwart
unwanted use of video or still cameras.
The prototype device, produced by a team in the Interactive and
Intelligent Computing division of the Georgia Tech College of Computing
(COC), uses off-the-shelf equipment camera-mounted sensors,
lighting equipment, a projector and a computerto scan for,
find and neutralize digital cameras. The system works by looking for
the reflectivity and shape of the image-producing sensors used in
Gregory Abowd, an associate professor leading the project, says the new
camera-neutralizing technology shows commercial promise in two
principal fields protecting limited areas against
clandestine photography or stopping video copying in larger areas such
Were at a point right now where the
prototype we have developed could lead to products for markets that
have a small, critical area to protect,
said. Then were also looking to do
additional research that could increase the protected area for one of
our more interesting clients, the motion picture industry.
Abowd said the small-area product could prevent espionage photography
in government buildings, industrial settings or trade shows. It could
also be used in business settingsfor instance, to stop
amateur photography where shopping-mall-Santa pictures are being taken.
James Clawson, a research technician on Abowds prototype
team, said preventing movie copying could be a major application for
Movie piracy is a $3 billion-a-year problem,
Clawson maintains a problem said to be especially acute in
Asia. If someone videotapes a movie in a theatre
and then puts it up on the web that night or burns half a million
copies to sell on the street then the movie industry has
lost a lot of in-theatre revenue.
Moreover, movie theatres are likely to be a good setting for
camera-blocking technology, said Jay Summet, a research assistant who
is also working on the prototype. A cameras image sensor
called a CCDis retroreflective, which means it
sends light back directly to its origin rather than scattering it.
Retroreflections would probably make it relatively easy to detect and
identify video cameras in a darkened theatre.
The current prototype uses visible light and two cameras to find CCDs,
but a future commercial system might use invisible infrared lasers and
photo-detecting transistors to scan for contraband cameras. Once such a
system found a suspicious spot, it would feed information on the
reflections properties to a computer for a determination.
The biggest problem is making sure we
dont get false positives from, say, a large shiny earring,
said Summet. We need to make our system work well
enough so that it can find a dot, then test to see if its
reflective, then see if its retroreflective, and then test
to see if its the right shape.
Once a scanning laser and photodetector located a video camera, the
system would flash a thin beam of visible white light directly at the
CCD. This beam possibly a laser in a commercial version
would overwhelm the target camera with light, rendering
recorded video unusable. Researchers say that energy levels used to
neutralize cameras would be low enough to preclude any health risks to
Still camera neutralization in small areas also shows near-term
commercial promise, Abowd said. Despite ambient light levels far higher
than in a theatre, still cameras at a trade show or a mall should be
fairly easy to detect, he said. Thats because image sensors
in most cell phones and digital cameras are placed close to the lens,
making them easier to spot than the deeper-set sensors of video cameras.
Camera neutralizations potential has helped bring it under
the wing of VentureLab, a Georgia Tech group that assists fledgling
companies through the critical feasibility and first-funding phases.
Operating under the name DominINC, Abowds company has
already received a Phase 1 grant from the Georgia Research Alliance
(GRA) with VentureLab assistance.
Abowd said that funding availability will likely decide which
technologysmall- or large-areawill be developed
first. DominINC will apply soon for GRA Phase 2 money, Abowd said.
Those funds would be used to aid anti-piracy product development, as
would any funding coming from the film industry.
Other potential funding, from industry and elsewhere, would likely be
used to develop anti-espionage small-area applications.
Stephen Fleming, Georgia Techs chief commercialization
officer, said motion-picture groups are actively looking for technology
to foil piracy. Movie distributors might even promote
camera-neutralizing systems by refusing to send films to theatres that
dont install anti-piracy systems.
There are some caveats, according to Summet. Current
camera-neutralizing technology may never work against
single-lens-reflex cameras, which use a folding-mirror viewing system
that effectively masks its CCD except when a photo is actually being
taken. Moreover, anti-digital techniques dont work on
conventional film cameras because they have no image sensor.
Good computer analysis will be the heart of effective camera blocking,
Most of the major work that we have left involves
he said. False
positives will eliminated by making a system with fast, efficient
Also involved in the camera-neutralizing project are Shwetak Patel, a
College of Computing PhD student; Khai Truong, a former Georgia Tech
PhD student who is now at the University of Toronto, and Kent Lyons, a
College of Computing post-doctoral student. A paper on this technology
was published and presented at the Ubicomp 2005 conference in Tokyo,
Japan, last September.