A sense of place

Imaging applications benefit from maturing technology, recognizable value, and new capabilities.

Jan 1st, 2004

Imaging applications benefit from maturing technology, recognizable value, and new capabilities.

Imaging technologies have clearly come of age, with growing acceptance in both new and established fields. They have done so as the optics and electronics have matured, and because imaging applications help ensure manufacturing quality, cut costs, improve security, sense distant objects, and reveal the workings of the human body. It's a very diverse array of applications supported by an equally diverse range of companies making sensors, cameras, frame grabbers, electronics, and software, as well as the integrators who tailor systems specifically for each application.

Most of the sensors and some of the cameras, primarily for scientific applications, will be on display at Photonics West (San Jose, CA; Jan. 24–29), while shows such as the Vision Show East (Boston, MA; May 4–6) focus more on machine-vision cameras and systems. The most important show of this sort—VISION—takes place every October, in Stuttgart, Germany. Unlike U.S. trade shows, which are often linked to technical conferences drawing academics and other researchers, VISION is focused solely on business and sales.

Given the show's location in the heart of the German auto manufacturing industry, automotive and electronics applications dominated VISION 2003, but pharmaceutical and food/beverage applications were the rising tide. Business was brisk, with more than 200 exhibitors and 4400 attendees, most of whom described expanding market opportunities. The social highlight was the annual exhibitor party and dance fest thrown after hours on the show floor by Stemmer Imaging (Puchheim, Germany). Trade show organizers in the United States should take a lesson!

Bionic imaging

Researchers certainly have their value, and one team that has been looking into biological models for imaging technologies has produced the Bi-i camera, which was exhibited at VISION 2003 by AnaLogic Computers (Budapest, Hungary). The camera won the award for best product at the show. The design of the sensor chip inside the Bi-i camera was first conceived in 1988 by three academics: Leon Chua and Frank Werblin at the University of California, Berkley, and Tamás Roska at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (Budapest, Hungary).1 Called a cellular visual microprocessor (CVM), the sensor has an architecture similar to the biological structure of the human retina. One version, known as the ACE16k chip, has an optical focal-plane array of 16,000 sensors mapped to an electronic processing array in a grid of 16,000 processors. This CVM can capture over 10,000 128 × 128-pixel images per second.

This design solves some fundamental obstacles to affordable, very high-speed digital imaging: limited computational power and an input/output bottleneck. With its grid structure, the CVM design offers a parallel approach to solving these problems. When the chip is used as a focal-plane array to acquire optical image frames, the computational load drops close to zero. The frames are then transferred to the processor elements and analyzed in parallel.

The CEO of Analogic, Ákos Zaránday, says that a stereo version of the Bi-i camera using two ACE16k chips sensors can be used as a very high-speed three-dimensional camera to guide a fast-moving robot. A camera combining one ACE16k chip with a 1.3 megapixel CMOS sensor can follow moving objects or seek special terrain features. Applications include inspecting pills, paper, or textiles; multitarget tracking; and monitoring front seat passengers in automobiles as part of a smart airbag system. Zaránday adds that AnaLogic is working with NASA on a terrain feature classification system for high-speed navigation over the surface of Mars.

It's not certain how big the market will be for such new imaging technologies and products, but most will find a home as end users understand the benefits.


T. Toska, Á.Rodríguez-Vázquez. Proc. of IEEE 90(7) (July 2002).

CONARD HOLTON is editor in chief of Vision Systems Design; e-mail: cholton@pennwell.com.

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