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The Vision Thing

January 07, 2002

By Peter W. Huber

Silicon that sees. You'll find it in Microsoft's new game terminal, the Xbox. And in airport luggage scanners. In the next five years it will take over most of the guts of every new television. The Pentagon can't buy enough of it. It will be integrated into every hospital X-ray machine and CAT scanner, into the dashboard of every car, into automotive radar systems and infrared imaging systems. It will become a part of every factory robot.

Last month I discussed some of the security technologies being engaged to watch and track the movement of people and things through the civilian economy. The new "seeing" technologies shine light across a wide range of frequencies, from microwaves to X rays. For a richly illustrated survey of the topic, take a look at Austin Richards' just-published Alien Vision: Exploring the Electromagnetic Spectrum with Imaging Technology. The descendants of Edison's lightbulb now shine into places that ordinary light cannot penetrate and illuminate detail that ordinary eyes were never meant to see. Step by step, the visual power of the million-dollar CAT scanner and military radar system has been readied to move out into the rest of life.

What the new forms of light expose gets picked up by sensors and converted into gargantuan streams of digital data. A point of reference: The automated luggage scanners used in the catacombs of airports generate about 200 megabits per second of data--some 4,000 times the speed of a dial-up modem. A new type of computing--"stream computing"--has emerged to handle the back end of sonar, radar, X-ray sources and certain broadband applications such as voice-over Internet and digital TV. Multiple processors and high-performance graphics-analyzing chips are linked across high-speed communication channels, in assemblies whose raw number-crunching power approaches that of a supercomputer.

Much of the time the end point of the new seeing will be in another computer, equipped with a massive database, whose main purpose is to recognize patterns by comparing a new image with a catalog of previously encoded images. This is how machines will ultimately take over the business of interpreting X rays and mammograms, searching for flaws in turbine blades, checking welds, finding concealed weapons, hidden tunnels and unmarked graves.

But some significant part of the new seeing will have to end back at the human eyeball and in the human brain. And so far as computing power goes, the mirror image of the luggage scanner is now landing in places like Microsoft's Xbox. The Nvidia graphics chip inside it embodies stupendous amounts of specialized, image-building computing power, along with advanced audio, high-speed networking and Web-connection capabilities--a big step beyond the already astounding display capabilities of the competing Sony and Nintendo machines.

Video cameras merely record and transmit, without really engaging digital intelligence to acquire the images or analyze them. Webcams are proliferating, but remain almost equally passive--their main virtue is that they facilitate distribution of digital photographs by hooking directly to the Web. Far more is now possible, affordable and moving into the mass market. Toyota, Jaguar, Nissan, Mercedes, Lexus and others have been putting millimeter-wavelength radar units in their high-end European models for some time. Cadillac offers an infrared imaging system.

From lightbulb to image-processing chip to pattern-recognition system to eyeball, all the key technologies are now falling into place. They are now about where microprocessors and RAM were in the mid-1980s. In this high-tech sector, we're entering a period of spectacular growth.

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