Blog

11.22.2019

Harnessing Technological Magic to Enhance Video Footage

By: Dr. Russell Sieron, Principal Software Development Engineer, Maxar Technologies


Read Time: 5 minutes

Arthur C. Clarke postulated that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Developing such technology is not easy, but it is the first step to creating something that impacts daily life. Most consumers don’t want to know how or why something works; they want to know how it can make their life easier, more comfortable or more entertaining. There are many examples of the successful development of such technologies, and far more examples of failures. Here are a few examples of successfully harnessing magic:

Mobile phones - Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio in the 1940’s comic strip and Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone in the 1960’s television comedy Get Smart bypassed the monumental technical developments needed for mobile communications to give us exciting and humorous glimpses into the future. Now, due to technological advances that most users don’t care to know about and may be incapable of understanding, we can talk, video chat and even watch old episodes of Get Smart wherever we “have enough bars.”

Air conditioning –The Pueblo cliff dwellers in New Mexico used the thermal capacitance of a mountainside of rock to battle the extreme climate of the desert southwest. In the early 1900’s, Willis Haviland Carrier developed technology to make use of the thermodynamic changes associated with evaporation and condensation to reduce the temperature and moisture content in the air. Later work by chemical engineers improved the efficiency of the system. Today, the availability of air conditioning has changed the desert southwest from a brutal environment to a place where humans choose to live.

Remotely sensed imagery – In 1962, President Kennedy declassified high altitude photography to show the world Russian missile facilities being installed in Cuba. Today, satellite imagery is big business, and it has changed our world for the better in many ways. It appears on our automobile navigation systems, computers and even in television shows like What On Earth?, which often features Maxar employees as subject matter experts. The incredible technology supporting the orbiting sensors is no longer magic to consumers, it is part of everyday life.

Another opportunity exists to harness technological magic, and we have reached an important first milestone.

I Can See for Miles and Miles

Over the past two decades, engineers and scientists in Maxar’s Sensor Systems division in Michigan have developed and refined a technology called Imaging through Volume Turbulence(IVT). It is real-time software that overcomes challenging collection conditions for surface, airborne and submerged video sensors. Its primary goal is to remove the distortion introduced by heated or moist air, as seen in the video below.

IVT enhances video in which objects that are miles away and even across a body of water become clearly identifiable; the blur and ever-changing distortion from atmospheric turbulence are corrected, as shown below.

IVT also performs other feats of technological magic. Using IVT, you can see what is hiding in the shadows. You can remove falling snow from a video. When used underwater, IVT reveals details that were obscured by the turbidity of the water. In the low light of pre-dawn, it produces video with proper colors and enhanced detail.


Is it Really Technological Magic?

I just returned from the NVIDIA GTC in Washington D.C. where IVT was demonstrated as part of the Maxar exhibition booth. The response of conference attendees was a resounding yes. Their reactions to the IVT video samples were like the response to any good magic trick -- they included amazement, surprise and to attempts to figure out how we did it.

Those initial responses quickly turned to excitement when viewers learned that we have made this magic available as a commercial product. Over the last two years, we have transitioned engineering code written for experimentation on a $12K server to a user-friendly, fully supported, easily integrated software package that runs on portable hardware costing less than $2,000. Abracadabra!

IVT can be used to enhance video collected from airborne platforms, perimeter/border surveillance and inspection of undersea structures. Potential customers are not limited to the U.S., as IVT has been approved for export.

We Don’t Have to Stop There

With continued improvements to further automate the algorithm and increase its versatility, IVT could become part of consumers’ everyday life. One possible application is the enhancement of binoculars and telescopes to extend usable viewing distances beyond what optical magnification alone will allow. Another possibility is in self-driving vehicles, where it could enhance the performance of vision systems used for object and character recognition, particularly during snow and rain.

As processing technology developments further reduce the Size Weight and Power (SWaP) needed to support IVT video processing, other products will become feasible. IVT diving goggles could extend the range of vision for both professional and recreational divers. Digital corrective eyewear could replace refractory lenses with an embedded video system that collects, processes and displays the video to the user. IVT enhancement would provide better night vision, the ability to see through falling precipitation, and unprecedented distance vision.

No technology makes to jump from development to a consumer staple immediately. The original mobile phone had to be carried in a bag and didn’t do anything except make and receive phone calls. As we continue to make improvements and leverage developments in supporting technologies, IVT could evolve from a commercial product for specific applications to a product that is part of our daily life.

For more information on IVT, please contact Russell.Sieron@maxar.com.

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