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Sharper Image

The FBI is turning to a small Boston software firm for help in transforming surveillance video into high-resolution images — and then using the pictures to help track terrorists. Call it the ultimate killer app.

Immediately following the World Trade Center and Pentagon disasters, FBI agents tried desperately to reconstruct the hijackers’ movements in the days leading up to the attacks. Often, the best evidence was caught on surveillance cameras at hotel and rental-car counters, at ATM machines, or in airport doorways and concourses.

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But the images were generally poor, as most photos transferred from video tend to be, and possible accomplices’ faces were often fuzzy, making identification even more difficult.

In Boston, where hijackers boarded two planes, the need for photo-processing expertise was especially acute. A week after the attack, stacks of videotape had piled up at FBI headquarters, ready for printing through a process that was cumbersome and yielded generally dismal results.

Like countless other television viewers, Steven Hill, CEO of a small local software company named Salient Stills Inc., watched those images on the nightly news. But unlike most citizens, Hill knew just how to help.

“When we saw those video-frame grabs, we thought, We can’t be fighting this thing with one hand behind our back,” he says.

Hill’s company develops software that converts video from cable, satellite, or videotape into high-quality, high-resolution still images. Originally designed for news organizations that need to convert video footage into images for print, the VideoFOCUS software has recently been adopted by crime-fighting organizations eager to get clearer pictures of felons at work.

The Boston Police Department, for example, purchased a system for use in tracking Oxycontin bandits caught on surveillance cameras at area pharmacies. The U.S. Navy is using the system, as are police departments in Singapore and Italy. But never had the need to create crisp portraits been quite as critical to national security as it was during the first weeks of September.

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So Hill and his colleagues quickly contacted the local FBI headquarters and offered to make one of Salient Stills’ systems available to the bureau and to train agents to use it. “I felt so powerless watching the events of September 11 on television,” Hill says. “So it felt good to contribute. And now I can tell my kids what I did.”

Salient Stills was originally born in 1992 at MIT’s Media Lab. As a graduate student, company founder and CTO Laura Teodosio was interested in developing a way to open the world of video content to print.

She was inspired by high-profile news stories that originated on videotape and migrated to still images over time — everything from Olympics coverage to war footage, from the Zapruder tape images of the Kennedy assassination to the Rodney King beating. They were memorable images — of generally rotten photographic quality. And Teodosio knew that converted images deteriorated even further when they were enlarged for print publication.

So she set about developing a software program that allows photo editors to grab an image from a videotape or a live feed — both of which typically whip by at 30 frames per second — and to transform it quickly into a sharp, high-quality still image comparable to one produced by a 35mm camera. The project earned her an A. More important, she attracted the attention of the Lab’s cofounder and director, Nicholas Negroponte, who thought the project had commercial potential.

Five years later, with Teodosio’s technology, and Negroponte’s funding, Salient Stills opened for business.

The New York Times soon adopted the system for its photo editors, allowing them to lift images from TV and use those images in large, color formats. The Times routinely uses Salient Stills’ software to process images of political campaigns and advertising lifted from TV.

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“The technology not only makes better images, but it also makes processing very easy, which is important during the deadline rush,” Teodosio says. “Other news organizations — especially those with broadcast affiliates — will now send a videographer instead of a photographer to a breaking story. Then they can use the video on TV and get any frame they want for the newspaper. That eliminates the chance that the still photographer might have looked away at the critical moment.”

Ad agencies are also discovering cost savings. “Agencies often need frame grabs for storyboards or for pitches to prospective clients,” Hill says. “They currently have to tie up video equipment that costs them $1,000 an hour and is meant for more sophisticated uses — and they still end up with a crappy print.”

And the medical world is investigating the software’s potential in endoscopy (imagine scrapbook-ready images of your ulcer) and in ultrasound (sure to be a boon to proud parents to be). Consumer applications abound as well, from making stills from a wedding video to generating prints of Junior hitting a home run captured on the family video camera.

But the application that has most gripped Salient Stills lately is the system’s crime-fighting potential.

Teodosio’s team is rapidly developing new features in response to law-enforcement needs. The company will soon give the FBI a new version of the software that will allow agents to reorder a video that has been shot from a location where four different cameras snapped images sequentially and then fed them into one recorder.

Meanwhile, Salient Stills unveiled its technology at this week’s American Society for Industrial Security meeting in San Antonio, Texas. The response, Hill says, has been “unbelievable.”

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Government and law-enforcement agencies, investigative services, and camera manufacturers have all shown interest. “The show seems perfectly timed to take advantage of the heightened awareness of security, especially in video surveillance,” says Teodosio.

Linda Tischler (ltischler@fastcompany.com) is the Fast Company managing editor of new media. Contact Steven Hill (steve@salientstills.com) and Laura Teodosio (teo@salientstills.com) by email.

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About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.

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