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Serious Science: gesture recognition signals Surveillance 2.0

With the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch making touch screen technology mainstream, ‘touchless’ or non-tactile interactive screens are something much less known. Apart from sounding very much Wii 2.0, what about Surveillance 2.0?

With the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch making touch screen technology mainstream, ‘touchless’ or non-tactile interactive screens are something much less known. Apart from sounding very much Wii 2.0, what about Surveillance 2.0?

When window shopping went interactive

Several years ago, I did some contract work for an interactive applications developer who were at the time time edging towards bespoke touch screen systems for retail and leisure.

The systems worked behind shop windows, allowing people to browse holiday destinations from travel agents, or special offers in high street stores.

The advantage here is that customers could still check availability on a variety of products & services outside regular opening hours.

Well that was over 5 years ago and this is now, thanks to Elliptic Labs and their ‘touchless’ technology:

“Elliptic Labs is paving the way for use of computers and screens without touching, simply with the finger or hand in the air. Manipulate images, play computer games, control robotics or use touch screens without touching or without holding a hardware control unit.”

Beyond the Nintendo Wii generation

I suppose it’s both inevitable and obvious that when thinking about gesturing technology, our thoughts turn to Nintendo and their Wii. After all, the Wii broke very new ground in gesture-based input, which pretty much caught both Sony and Microsoft off guard.

However, gesture recognition techniques that aren’t reliant on any additional input device is something else — although one would be required if this technology was to be adopted by Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony et al for video game consoles.

How else would you emulate the myriad of buttons needed for things like flight simulators, for example?

Much like the bionic eye contact lens, gesture recognition technology goes far beyond the obvious mobile communications and entertainment.

Soon, our every movement might be the subject of much security scrutiny.

Surveillance 2.0 — automated altercation alarms

One use of gesture recognition that sprung immediately to mind was the world of surveillance.

Automated systems could monitor people passing through major transport hubs — such as bus depots, train stations, air & sea ports, for example — spotting violent altercations or individuals acting furtively.

There’s no doubt that such systems have to be very accurate. The difference between an attentive girlfriend wiping the mouth of her boyfriend is to we humans very different to a woman slapping the face of some guy.

But to hardware & software, the distinction may well be less clear and more nuanced, riddled with an array of subtle criteria that we take for granted.

Furtiveness has surely got to be a trickier proposition, requiring some knowledge of the layout and importance of certain buildings, as well as the strategic value of specific parts of a building and their general locations.

This goes beyond simply recognizing gestures and moves onto a much larger body of data gathering and processing. So the feasibility of such measures is subject to a great many things, not least the technology.

In our modern world, one of terrorist alerts and gang violence acted out on our streets, in our shopping malls, and with diminishing police resources, automated systems designed to detect acts of violence — or violent gestures in close proximity to another person — could help in the fight against violent crime.

Detecting violent crime would be one thing, but what about identifying the perpetrators?

By combining gesture recognition technology with a national CCTV (Closed-Circuit Television) network of facial recognition systems, rather quickly you can easily imagine how our lives will come under more scrutiny than ever before:

“The British security hierarchy has recently called for the nation’s wide but unconnected CCTV coverage to be upgraded, expanded and — most significantly — centrally accessible. Combined with reliable automatic face recognition, such a system would allow the location and tracking of individuals en masse.”

Slinking in from the shadows is the clouded issue of privacy, compounding fears of an approaching “Surveillance Society“.

And in light of the British government’s intentions of centralizing surveillance, hissed references to an Orwellian world of Big Brother aren’t unjustified:

“In its 2007 International Privacy Ranking, the civil liberties group looked at how 47 countries carried out surveillance activities on citizens and described the UK as having an “endemic surveillance” society; beaten only beaten by China, Russia and Malaysia.”

Is privacy to be the price of peace?

Such concerns are genuine, legitimate if inconvenient arguments, which remind me of a somewhat prophetic observation from the past:

“Those who are ready to sacrifice freedom for security ultimately will lose both.”
~ Abraham Lincoln (1805 – 1865)

What price do we pay to ensure our citizens can go about their lives unmolested — is it their privacy when in public?

Technology isn’t the panacea for all societal problems. Often times, problems in society require rules of law and people with self belief and discipline to enforce and then make the required changes work.

Are our faces and our gestures to be the subject of security policies and the criteria for detecting crime?

If so, many might be left with their hands in the air wearing a look of surprise, while others might wipe their brows with an expression of relief…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.