The Letterbox Curse

Ahh, the good old analog days; all monitors were 4:3, and all cameras provided 4:3 aspect video (for the sake of the argument, let’s just assume that this was universally true, and forget about PAL, NTSC, SECAM and all the other issues). As cameras match the monitors, there would be no letterboxing, a 2×2 would neatly show 4 feeds.

If you had a character generator, the text would be placed “on top of the video” which was fortunate, because placing it outside would cause the aspect of the text and the video to be closer to 4:4 and cause a mismatch in the aspect ratios. Mismatched aspect ratios means that we need to letterbox, crop or squeeze the video (causing people to look fat or skinny).

It seems as if most people hate letterboxing, and prefer a slighty squeezed image (I HATE squeezing!), and some televisions will use a non-linear scaling causing the video in the center to be natural, while the poor people at the edge look extra fat! This – to me – is the weirdest option, but the one that my dad most often selects when watching sports!

Today we have every conceivable combination of aspect ratios; 4:3 video feeds on ultra-widescreen monitors is perhaps the most extreme causing almost half the screen to be letterboxed or distorting the feed to the point that people look extremely overweight when standing, while they look emaciated when horizontal.

One of the solutions we are working on is a more dynamic presentation of the video. I think that we can probably use analytics to determine what we show on the screen. Imagine a parking lot, why not scale and crop as determined by analytics. As people walk across the lot, the analytics will provide a set of ROIs to the renderer. The renderer can then decide to either scale and crop to fit a bounding box of the ROIs – OR – it can split the feed into 2 “virtual feeds” each showing a smaller bounding box. Naturally, we’d need to smooth out the movement of the “virtual camera”, but I am sure it can be done.

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High Tech Surveillance is no Panacea

Interesting story about high-tech (GPS) used to track convicts.

Officials say the backlog grew because they lacked software to run an ongoing report of all unresolved cases. That is, supervisors in Southern California were working only with reports of new alarms, rather than a report showing previous alarms that had not been cleared.

Story in bnet

When the UI mask “real” Issues

Let’s be clear; UI issues are real issues, and should be treated as such, but they are different in the sense that a poor UI can be usable, given enough practice and training, but technical issues (such as crashes) will render a product useless.

For the NVR writer the test is pretty simple. The NVR must acquire video and audio when instructed to do so, and it should be able to deliver the acquired data to the end user whenever they feel compelled to gaze at it. Sure, there are plenty more things the NVR need to do reliably, but the crux is that the testing is pretty static and deterministic.

Enter the grey area of analytics – it is much more difficult to test an analytics solution. Sure, we could set up a very wide range of reference tests that might be used to measure the quality of the algorithms (assuming the thing does not crash), but these tests might be “gamed” by the vendor, or then number of required tests would make the testing prohibitively expensive. I am sure there would be a market for an analytics test generator, simulating fog, rain, reflections, shadows, vibration and so on ad infinitum at almost no cost, but that’s beside the point.

My concern is that sometimes the actual, real performance is masked by poor UI; the operator blames the poor performance not on the algorithms, but instead themselves for not configuring, calibrating and nursing the system enough. When the vendors techies come on site they are always able to tweak the system to capture the events – “see, you just have to mask out this area, set up this rule, disable this other rule” and so on. The problem is that 2 days later, when it’s raining AND there is fog, the analytics come up short again. You tweak the rules, and now you’ve broken the setup for reflections and shadows and so it goes on and on.

This dark merry-go-round of tweaking is sometimes masked by the poor (crap?) UI. So this brings us to my argument: If the UI had been stellar, logical, easy to use, intuitive and all that, then the operator would quickly realize that the system is flawed and should be tossed. But if the UI is complex, weird, counterintuitive it takes longer for the end user to realize that something is fundamentally wrong, and subsequently they might stay in the business for longer.

Sure, at times things are just inherently complex (the complexities of a program can never be removed by replacing text-entry with drag’n drop), NAT setups and port forwarding is always a little difficult to handle in an elegant way and so on, and naturally analytics do require a fair bit of massaging before they work entirely as intended (if you have realistic expectations!! – which reminds me of a book I read recently on the financial meltdown; if people demand snakeoil, snakeoil will be provided).

End rant.