Scunthorpe – where else would you find a naked man running down the high street wielding a machete?

English: A car park from above.

English: A car park from above. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I wouldn’t park there if I were you” said the shifty looking youth in the hooded top.

We looked at each other puzzled; “But it’s a car park.”

“Fridges.” he replied in his thick Northern accent.

Must be something in the water round here; “Sorry – what do you mean?”

“Off top” he said, gesturing to the large tower block overlooking the car park.

“They like using cars for target practise – wit’ fridges.”

Blimey – we could see why this was the home of our shiny new software. It was a town centre monitoring system, hooking up CCTV cameras with alarms, door locks and radio systems across the town centre. After swiftly moving the car to a safer looking parking spot, we headed towards the control centre which looked like a hardened bunker at the nexus of the three tower blocks. Security was very tight and neither of us thought to bring any photo ID.

“We wrote your software. We’re here to see it.”

“Righto sunshine, pull the other one.” said a disembodied voice behind a grille.

We were eager to see the software in action. Although we carried out extensive testing in the lab’, we could only run the system at a small-scale because there were only so many cameras and monitors we could fit on the premises. Eventually, we managed to persuade our vigilant friend that we weren’t fully paid up members of the hooded fridge throwers club and he let us in.

This was back in the late nineties, and the system was advanced for the time. Each operator had a touch screen with which they could navigate over a map of the city. All of the cameras were shown together with their fields of view.

By tapping on a camera, the operator could move it around using a touch screen joypad. Each camera could be made to appear either picture in picture on the operator’s monitor or on a wall of monitors. We even had multiplexer support so that the operator could have many camera pictures showing up in a grid on his monitor.

Built into the system were alarms. When anything triggered an alarm, cameras would go to predetermined positions and appear on predetermined monitors to bring whatever triggered the alarm to the operator’s attention. Right in front of us, an alarm went off and the system sprang into action. It was a real thrill to see the software we created working in anger.

We didn’t have long to admire our handiwork as our vigilant friend ushered us out of the room.

Eventually, the police turned up and we overheard the source of all the excitement. A naked man rampaged down Scunthorpe high street wielding a machete.

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Facial recognition – my phone is better than I am

A facial composite produced by FACES software

A facial composite produced by FACES software (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve never been particularly good at recognising faces or at putting names to faces. Unfortunately, this is compounded by the fact that I have to meet a lot of people as part of my job. I used to be really envious of my optician who remembers every single customer by name. Either he doesn’t have many customers or more likely he is very good at recognising people.

Facial recognition seems to be everywhere now. Most smartphones have the technology built-in. My wife’s camera has it. Even Facebook has it, and it tends to be pretty accurate too. Facial recognition has come a very long way since I first played with it 15 years ago.

We were doing some research for some US department of something or other on whether facial recognition and crowd recognition software could be used to tackle such diverse issues as crowd control, anti terrorism and to pick out pickpockets in a large group of people.

The blurb behind the recognition engines was impressive. Apparently, the software could pick out the telltale movement signatures of someone who was up to no good or by looking at a crowd, predictions could be made as to the underlying mood of the crowd and how likely they were to become hostile.

We had to take their word for some of these features, because our lab lacked both a large crowd and a friendly felon to act shiftily. We all took it turns to pretend to act shiftily, but either the machine was too clever to be fooled or we just didn’t have it within us act nefariously enough.

We could, however, test out the facial recognition engine. We each took it in turns to have our photograph taken to give the software a library of faces to choose from. All in all, we had about half a dozen photos. Once we had the photos, we took turns to pose in front of the camera to see how the facial recognition engine worked in practise.

All in all, it wasn’t too bad at recognising a full face image, getting it right probably 3 out of 4 times. The trouble was the time the processing took. If you were pointing your camera at a crowd of people trying to pick out a known felon, your crowd would be half a mile down the road before the software had made it through half the crowd. The processing power simply wasn’t enough back then.

I assume that with the increase in processing power in the last 15 years, such software is viable these days and in common usage in airports and at large stadium events around the world. Even though it all sounds a bit big brother, I think it’s a good thing if it improves the safety of the general populace.

I just wish they would hurry up and install facial recognition into my spectacles so that I might be able to recognise someone other than my optician.