System Aims To Thwart Bootlegged Videos Of Movies

Georgia Tech researchers' prototype of a digital camera neutralizing system could help the movie industry save billions of dollars from counterfeiters.

The motion picture industry applauded the FBI Wednesday after the bureau arrested 13 suspected members of a movie-piracy ring, but the movie makers' cheering should be directed toward a team of computer scientists at Georgia Institute of Technology that's developing a system to thwart such counterfeiters.

Headed by associate professor Gregory Abowd, researchers from the institute's Interactive and Intelligent Computing division have created a prototype of a digital camera neutralizing system that could prevent movie pirates from video recording movies in theaters. Abowd believes a commercial product of the digital camera neutralizing system could be available within a year.

The team created its prototype of the digital camera neutralizing system by using off-the-shelf equipment--camera-mounted sensors, lighting equipment, a projector, and a PC--to scan for, locate, and neutralize digital cameras.

Here's how it works: Each digital camera has an image sensor known as a CCD, which is retroreflective and sends light back directly to its original source rather than scattering it. Retroreflections make it fairly easy to detect and identify video cameras by sending out either a visible or invisible beam of light. Once identified, the system would beam an invisible, infrared laser into the camera's lens and, in effect, overexpose the recording, rendering the recorded video unusable. Energy levels used to neutralize cameras are low and neither poses a health risk to the operator nor damages the camera.

Abowd's prototype uses visible light and two cameras to find CCDs, but a commercial system would employ invisible infrared light and photo-detecting transistors.

Besides movie theaters, the camera-neutralizing system could be used in government and business labs to thwart spying. Conceivably, it also could be used at malls to prevent parents from taking their own pictures of their kids sitting on Santa's lap--and not paying for the elves-produced photograph--or by celebrities to prevent paparazzi from snapping images of them stepping out of a tony boutique.

An obvious use of the camera-neutralizing system could be in locker rooms where phone cameras can be used surreptitiously to snap picture of individuals in various stages of undress after a workout. Abowd, though, doesn't think many health clubs would invest in such a system because it wouldn't provide a good return on investment.

There are limits to the Georgia Tech system. It can't detect single-lens-reflex cameras that employ a folding-mirror viewing mechanism that masks its CCD except when a photo is being snapped, or conventional film cameras that don't have an image sensor. Abowd says his group is trying to overcome those problems.

Another area of concern: criminals who use the image-neutralizing system to disable security cameras. Abowd says the same technology can be used to secure security cameras, though he declined to reveal how the countermeasures would work.

The Motion Picture Association of America estimates that film piracy last year cost the industry $6.1 billion, including $3.8 billion to bootlegging and illegal copying of movies, much of it from individuals who illicitly record movies when the picture first opens in theaters. The MPAA estimates that 90% of newly released films that become available through bootleggers and on the Internet come from video recordings made in theaters. Counterfeiters use the Internet to quickly distribute the illicit versions of the new films, which appear on the streets or on the Internet within days of their theatrical release.

Abowd has formed a company called DominInc to commercialize the technology and has received some backing from the Georgia Research Alliance. Whether DominInc will initially concentrate on developing systems for labs or theaters depends on where the next round of funding originates.

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