From Printers to Preemies, the Science of Imaging Touches Our Lives

by Suzette Norris

Three years ago, Xerox Research Fellow Lalit K. (“LK”) Mestha was working on a piece of technology called a spectral sensor. It used reflected light to measure color precisely on a moving sheet of paper. Instead of touching the paper, the sensor collected information by shining light as the sheet moved, and sophisticated algorithms allowed the digital press to correct the images so it could produce consistent and accurate color quality.

As he worked, LK wondered if this approach to measurement might have other uses. Could it detect things like a person’s heart rhythm, heart rate or respiration for example? Could it one day be used to detect cancer?

In 2011, Robert Loce, another Xerox research fellow and expert in computer vision, began a similar line of questioning. He initiated a new research program to explore how our imaging expertise could be used more broadly in the world. Today Xerox researchers around the globe are simplifying and improving many processes such as collecting tolls on highways, directing drivers to open parking spots and assisting police officers in the search for suspects or missing persons.

The ability to harness vast amounts of information collected via images (such as in photographs or video frames) has prompted a new era of research at Xerox. Imaging, video, and computer vision technologists like Bob and LK now have the opportunity to invent and deliver diverse and interesting applications that benefit mankind.

Detect heart rates, breast cancer; monitor diabetes; prevent SIDS and more

In a neo-natal intensive care unit at a hospital in India, LK and his research team set up video cameras that extract the vital signs of about 90 newly born babies - without ever touching their skin. LK’s musings three years ago are being tested in a pre-clinical trial at Manipal University Hospital where Xerox is exploring an idea unofficially nicknamed “cybervitals.”

The cameras detect color changes in a baby’s skin, and create images of the subtle flushes that occur when the heart beats and blood flows through the vast network of vessels inside a human body. The images are sent to a computer that calculates things like the heart rate and blood oxygen level.

For now, the hospital continues to monitor the babies with standard equipment taped to their paper-thin skin and tiny earlobes. But one day, if Mestha and his team get their way, doctors will be able to monitor patients using a basic webcam with a special lens that scans the patient from a distance, preventing infection, patient distress and discomfort. LK also is working with the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York on a video-based study of people diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (a heart condition that increases the risk of stroke and can cause fainting, chest pain and congestive heart-failure). The idea is to use cameras to monitor a patient’s cardiac activity at home or offices. If the approach proves effective, the system could save lives by enabling easy-to-use ways to detect the occurrence of atrial fibrillation episodes.

As the research takes root, the team has begun exploring many different ways the light and camera-based technology can potentially benefit patient care and management including the occurrence of atrial fibrillation - a leading cause of strokes -- breast cancer, peripheral vascular disease, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and more. Their research also may be able to measure blood-glucose levels, helping millions of diabetics avoid finger prick tests.

The work, still in an exploratory stage, also has prompted researchers throughout the Xerox Research Center Webster in New York (where LK and Bob work) to spend their lunch breaks studying anatomy and physiology via a brown bag lunch series.

“We don’t need to become MDs or nurses to innovate in areas like health care, but it helps to understand the terminology and some of the science,” Bob said.

Zippier transportation

Image processing is also at work improving life on the highway. From 1960 to 2010, the number of registered vehicles in the United States tripled from 74.4 million to 250.2 million, according the U.S. Department of Transportation. And in 2010 an estimated 86 percent of all workers commuted to work in a car, truck or van -- with almost 90 percent of those driving alone.

In the real world, these statistics often take the form of traffic jams that prevent people from getting to work, deteriorate the air quality, waste fuel and cost taxpayers billions.

The research program Bob heads up investigates how video analytics can help. Infrared light (invisible to the human eye) is used in transportation technology to avoid driver distraction. It’s also used for printing in devices like laser printers.

Borrowing from their experience with scanners and copiers, researchers have developed a high-speed license plate recognition technology that is 99 percent accurate. Researchers see the technology solving a number of different traffic-related challenges such as toll collection.

Abu Islam, a researcher with a 17-year-old history of turning ideas into Xerox products, manages the center’s Intelligent Sensing for Transportation project. He said Xerox, which collects $3 billion in tolls annually for clients, already has deployed the new technology in Los Angeles. As image processing is further developed, Islam predicts it might one day eliminate the need for toll collection booths altogether. Driving from New York to Florida? Cameras, he said, could one day read your license plate as you drive along the highway (no breaking or slowing down required), and the system would simply bill you as you pass an invisible tolling point.

Researchers also have developed software that can rapidly search through large video data bases. In law enforcement, this technology could help officials quickly search for suspects, or to find missing persons in Amber or Silver Alert situations.

As image processing advances, it’s easy to imagine all sorts of life-improving innovations in store.

“This is only the beginning,” LK said. “With the expertise Xerox has in these areas, researchers have the chance to really make a difference, and even save lives.”