Monday, December 7, 2009

An invasion of privacy

Editor's Note: Watch the video version of editor Andy Wilson's "My View" blog, where you'll get Andy's unique take on what's buzzing through the machine-vision marketplace or just what's been buzzing through his mind lately. You can also read Andy's "My View" as seen in the November issue of Vision Systems Design.

Once or twice a year I have the pleasure of traveling to Germany to visit companies and trade shows. To take full advantage of the trip, I often fly to England to visit my brother and bring him duty-free cigarettes. Since smoking is now banned on most international flights from the United States, the six-hour trip often reduces my nails to a fraction of the length they were on boarding the aircraft. (Watch video below.)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bitter about Twitter

Editor's Note: Watch the video version of editor Andy Wilson's "My View" blog, where you'll get Andy's unique take on what's buzzing through the machine-vision marketplace or just what's been buzzing through his mind lately. You can also read Andy's "My View" as seen in the current issue of Vision Systems Design.

Before the age of information technology, the employees of many companies drove to work and, upon arriving, often spent half an hour gathered around the water cooler to hear the latest company gossip and scandal before retiring into separate walled offices to work. That is where socializing ended. (watch video below.)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The royal 'we'

Editor's Note: This month we launch a video version of editor Andy Wilson's "My View" blog, where you'll get Andy's unique take on what's buzzing through the machine-vision marketplace or just what's been buzzing through his mind lately.

Last month, I again had the pleasure of attending a very large trade show. There, as every year before, hordes of engineers demonstrated the latest machine-vision products. What makes this conference and trade show unique, however, was the fact that a large number of young engineers are present, many of whom have recently graduated from university (watch video below.)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A glowing future

Ever since I was young, I have always liked taking things apart, and my father, being a mechanical engineer, was only too willing to encourage me in my endeavors. And so in 1979 when his expensive, wooden cabinet-sized tube-based stereo system failed, I decided to attempt to repair it.

After my brother and I lifted the cabinet to the center of the living room, I unscrewed the stiff card backing of the machine and peered inside. There, in a large metal chassis was an array of valves that stood proudly in shiny round sockets.

I instructed my brother to turn the equipment on while I watched to see what happened. During the next few moments, theglass valves began to warm up and emit their eerie orange glow. That is, of course, all but one. This, I thought must be the culprit so, after turning off the stereo system and letting it cool down for ten minutes, I removed the valve in question.

Being a member of the press, I then tried to leverage my contacts at Philips to obtain a free sample of the Mullard valve in question. After being informed that Philips had not made the product for more than ten years, I was told that they could be obtained from a small company in India. My contact generously offered to obtain the product for me and ship it to my dad's house. I was delighted.

Several weeks later, a package arrived at the door from Philips. Excitedly, I opened the package and gazed upon the shiny newdevice. Following the same procedure as before, I located the socket of the defunct tube and placed in the new one.

To my delight, after switching the stereo system on, the voice of a BBC newscaster sprang from the speakers. Without engineering drawings, signal generators, or oscilloscopes, I had brought the stereo back from the dead. Even my old man could not believe it. In the decades that followed, valves were replaced by discrete transistors, transistors by TTL logic, and TTL logic by microprocessors, VLSI devices, and gate arrays. And, of course, everything is now smaller. In the machine-vision industry, for example, system integrators can now purchase a smart camera replete with sensor, CPU/DSP, memory, interface, and on-board software for less than $2,500.

System integration par excellence
Nowhere, however, has this level of integration been more significant than in the development of consumer products. To develop products such as mobile telephones, MP3 players, and portable televisions, engineers use sophisticated electronic and mechanical CAD packages rather than data sheets and drawing boards.

Using these packages, it is possible to cram more technology into a single square inch than ever before. And, if well designed, these products are less expensive, more reliable, and longer lasting than any valve-based system could ever expect to be. For those tasked with repairing such devices the task is more complex. More than likely, should the devices fail under warranty, they are replaced free of charge by the manufacturer.

Today, it has become more expensive to repair these devices than replace them with new ones. Although this is not yet the case in much of the machine-vision industry, those developing products for this market are also concerned with reducing cost and size.

To gain an advantage in this area, inquisitive engineers may want to take a look at what their counterparts have accomplished in the consumer market. Although purchasing every latest miniature device, tearing it apart, and characterizing each design may not be a wise idea, companies such as Portelligent (Austin, TX, USA; have emerged that can provide this data for you.

Replete with external and internal photographs, parts lists, component counts, and a manufacturing cost analysis, the reportscould provide you with just the edge you need when developing your next product. And you will not need a screwdriver, signal generator, or an oscilloscope -- just a check or credit card.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ready for prime time

It has been 36 years since I last watched a motion picture in three dimensions. That particular motion picture, Andy Warhol's Frankenstein, as most critics would agree, featured the highest camp this side of the Appalachian Trail. Although the movie itself was awful, the 3-D effects that were produced were as I recall rather impressive.

So, when the prospect of watching another motion picture in 3-D arose last month, I was eager to see the progress that had been made in 3-D cinema over the last three decades.

Early one Saturday morning my son and I drove to the nearest 3-D cinema to view Pixar Animation Studio's latest masterwork Up. Duly equipped with digital cinema servers from Doremi Cinema, the state-of-the-art cinema we attended featured more comfortable seats than can be found in the first-class cabin of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Upon entering, every audience member was handed the latest X101 Series 3-D active glasses from Pasadena, CA-based XpanD. Unlike the polarized 3-D glasses of the past, these digital glasses use the company's patented "pi-cell" liquid- crystal cell to deliver alternate right- and left-eye images and thus the perception of depth.
This, the company claims, produces the brightest, flicker-free stereoscopic image possible. Unfortunately, as the company should have mentioned, only the brightest image possible with this particular technology. Because despite the all-digital cinema, the loss of luminance caused by donning the all-digital glasses rendered the image somewhat dark.

Sadly, I must report that, despite the advent of all-digital cinemas, the progress made in 3-D projection technology in the past 30 years has been minimal. However, the advances in computer animation techniques have proved just the opposite, making Up the best motion picture Pixar has ever produced.

Up, up, and away
For those involved in machine vision, the advent of 3-D systems has resulted in a number of different technologies being deployed in an increasingly larger variety of applications. However, rather than advancing the way images are displayed, these technologies use a variety of methods to capture and process 3-D image data.

Using single and multiple camera-based systems, time-of-flight measurement sensors, and structured light-based cameras, system integrators are now deploying these technologies in applications for bin picking, robotic-guidance systems, and depth perception. Last month, many of these different technologies and applications were on show at the International Robots, Vision & Motion Control Show held near Chicago, IL. As well as highlighting these technologies, a system integrator pavilion allowed attendees to interact with system developers who proudly showed what they had accomplished.

Just as the machine-vision industry has evolved to embrace these new technologies, so too has the business of trade publishing. For those of you who could not attend the show, Vision Systems Design magazine decided to enter the motion picture business, producing a number of "shorts" that allowed vendors, system integrators, and manufacturers to broadcast their messages.

Although not quite as well produced, directed, or written as Pixar's Up, these videos do reflect the progress made by automation companies using 3-D technologies. And, rather than pay a $12 fee to view these videos, we have made them freely available on our web site at

In the coming months we will be adding more of these videos. Then, later this year, our trusty film crew will also be in Stuttgart, Germany, to bring you the latest news from VISION -- the world's largest machine vision and image processing show. We are sure you will find these videos informative and hopefully entertaining.

Although embracing new technology may not be a wise choice in certain consumer industries, it is certainly applicable to boththe machine-vision and publishing fields. And, for those of our readers who might be wondering, our videos can be viewed without the use of 3-D glasses.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Something old, something new

Many years ago, before the advent of personal computers, journalists used typewriters to compose their musings. After an article was typed, it was proof-read and then sent to be typeset on a typesetting machine that produced long strips of type known as galleys.

The galleys were returned to the publishing company, where they were pasted onto boards, photographed, and the negative images stripped into pages along with negative images of any pictures that accompanied the article. These were then sent to the printer, made into forms that consisted of multiple pages, and set on a print drum for final printing.

With the introduction of the personal computer and direct-to-plate printing systems, this process has been automated, making typesetting companies, prepress houses, and film technology obsolete. But the journey from there to here was not as easy as some may think.

For a number of years the typewriter coexisted with the personal computer as users found it difficult, if not impossible, to print labels using dot-matrix printers, for one thing. With the introduction of graphical user interfaces, a plethora of software standards, and hardware products such as laser writers, these problems no longer exist in today's business world.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the machine-vision industry. Like the publishing days of old, the machine-vision industry is replete with products ranging from lighting and illumination sources, cameras, and software that provide single-point solutions for specific machine-vision applications.

While researching this month's article on machine-vision lighting (see "Spanning the Spectrum", Vision Systems Design, June 2009), for example, I discovered a number of companies who have produced LED light sources that claim to replace older products that use halogen lamps. In their literature these manufacturers promote the products' long lifetimes, high luminous intensity, and reduced running costs.

Peaceful coexistence

Take one look at the spectral characteristics of these illumination systems, however, and you realize that the spectral output and linearity (light output vs. light intensity) of LED light sources is far different from those that use halogen lamps. Thus, microscopy users, who have for a number of years used halogen illumination to capture their images, will not obtain comparable images by simply replacing the halogen light source with one based on LED technology.

Before deploying an LED system, the user may need to optically filter the light source in an attempt to spectrally match the light output obtained by the older halogen lamp. Still, increasing the light intensity of the LED source may not provide the same results as the halogen lamp.

System integrators facing these tasks are also challenged in every other aspect of machine vision. Every year, new camera standards are being introduced, each of which offers its own unique benefits. For example, while Camera Link is fast and deterministic, GigE Vision products can extend camera-to-computer distances by up to 100 m.

Once again, the system integrator must determine which camera interface best suits the application, as well as factors such as the type of sensor used, the lens mount options, and the published specifications of the camera.

In developing new systems, of course, the problem of accommodating older technologies may not matter. If a problem can be solved using new products or technologies, then they will obviously be adopted. However, where backward-compatibility with existing installed systems is important, a complete understanding of the specifications of OEM product replacements is especially important.

Indeed, just as the typewriter and dot-matrix peacefully coexisted for a number of years in every publisher's office, so too will older and newer technologies continue to coexist in the next generation of machine-vision systems on the factory floor. This prospect is likely to continue until future hardware and software standards are developed to unify the choice of components for any specific machine-vision application.

Monday, May 4, 2009

It's not easy being green

One of the benefits of being a journalist is that one occasionally is treated to very expensive meals by companies looking to gain some exposure. Such food tastes especially good since, as my father used to say, it doesn't taste of copper. Sometimes, however, meeting a number of companies in a single day means that the potential of a meal must be forfeited for the sake of a story.

This was the case last month when I visited Xcitex, a company that makes image-analysis software, in the pursuit of a feature on high-speed imaging. Luckily, the folks at Xcitex had placed a rather large bowl of chocolate mints in the foyer of their building and, while waiting for the interview, I decided to scoff a few to ward off hunger.

Being a rather nervous type, I unfolded the chocolates from their green wrapper and rolled the wrapper of each backwards and forwards between my hands. After our host emerged, I decided to question him on the demonstration of image analysis that was being projected from a rather expensive flat-panel display, also located in the foyer.

As the demonstration continued I nervously rubbed by neck in an attempt to concentrate more fully on the explanation. To capture the essence of the story I then proceeded to extract a pen from my suit pocket. In doing so, I noticed that both my hands had turned dark green.

As a fan of the Fox TV show "House," I immediately recalled an episode where Gregory House made an incorrect diagnosis and cut off a man's foot due to what he perceived was gangrene. I panicked.

Luckily, my host escorted me to the nearest washroom rather than operating theater. There, to my horror, I saw that my hands, my neck, and part of my face had turned dark green. After splashing copious amounts of water on myself I returned to the conference room where I was greeted with looks of bemusement.

The color of money
When the interview was over, I contemplated the effects of "being green" during the drive home. Although advances in solar and wind power will certainly benefit developers of machine-vision systems, all is not well on the green front. For example, the current worldwide initiative to reduce the use of potentially hazardous materials such as lead is driving the electronics industry to consider alternatives to the widely used tin-lead alloys found in plating.

The European Union already has enacted legislation known as the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directives to eliminate most uses of lead from their products. Promoted as easing manufacturing and compatible with existing assembly methods, pure tin plating is seen as an effective alternative.
So much so that many manufacturers have offered pure tin-plated components as standard commercial products. But most have never heard of "tin whiskers"--a metallurgical phenomenon involving the spontaneous growth of tiny hairs from a metallic surface such as ICs bonded to circuit boards.

This growth can cause catastrophic effects in mission-critical systems such as aircraft, satellites, and defense-related equipment. Indeed, the effect of tin whiskers has already been blamed for satellite failures such as the Galaxy IV. Anyone who wishes to visit NASA's Tin Whisker web site at can see the detrimental effects of this phenomenon.

So, while you hear much written in the press about "going green" and the benefits of RoHS, remember there is always another side of the story. After your tightly bonded FPGA fails on your frame grabber within the next ten years, it may not be the fault of the board manufacturer but the processes that were mandated to make the world safer. While you might be enjoying the benefits of such green thoughts now, it may only rub off on you in the end.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Magical Mystery Tour

Stuart Singer, vice president of Schneider Optics, is one of the most knowledgeable and passionate people you could ever meet. He knows light, optics, and lenses and can tell you exactly what you need to understand when choosing a lens for your machine-vision or image-processing application.

Unfortunately, that's where his talent ends.

Last year, at his company's Christmas party, Singer decided to practice his talents at magic. Rather than perform simple card tricks, Singer decided to impress his colleagues with a more sophisticated performance.

In his first attempt at magic, Singer revealed a "magic hat" from a trunk of props. Promising that his audience would be amazed at these cunning stunts, Singer poured a cupful of water into the hat, waved his magic wand, and placed the hat upon his head. Sadly, the capillary tubes within the hat failed to absorb this water, with the result that Mr. Singer drenched himself in water.

Not to be deterred, our indefatigable vice president moved on to his next trick, placing three eggs in the hat and beat them with his magic wand. But again, these eggs were not properly placed within the secret reinforced compartment inside the hat, a fact unrecognized by Singer. Placing the hat on his head resulted in our would-be magician being drenched in both water and
beaten eggs.

At this point, less determined folk may have quit and walked offstage in shame. But Stuart Singer is not a man to surrender easily. Instead, he proceeded to enlist a member of the audience in what would become his final trick -- thrusting a sword through the neck of the volunteer.

To perform this trick, as experienced magicians realize, a yoke to be placed over the head of the assistant is first shown to the audience. Passing the sword through an opening in the yoke gives the illusion that the sword will enter the subject's neck.

When the trick is performed, another opening in the yoke is used, so that the sword passes around the yoke bypassing the person's neck. Singer, feeling rather nervous about his first two dismal failures, did manage to show the audience how the sword would pass through the empty yoke and through the neck of the entrapped person.

After he heaved the yoke on the hapless audience member's neck, he thrust the sword through the yoke.

Unfortunately for the volunteer, Singer chose the wrong slot to insert the sword. Rather than pass around the yoke, the sword rammed into the subject, resulting in yelps of howling pain as the intrepid volunteer ran around, repeatedly screaming, "Take it out of my neck."

Worried hotel employees called the police as Singer packed his fat trunk and surreptitiously crept out of the back door. A "back door man" is not exactly the way a vice president wants to be remembered at a Christmas party.

Luckily, Singer does not perform magic tricks for his company at trade shows. Others that do, such as Edmund Optics, employ professional magicians to attract crowds. Thankfully for clients of Schneider Optics, Singer knows much more about lenses, lighting, and optics than magic. Indeed, in the March 2009 issue, he co-authored an article with Greg Hollows of Edmund Optics describing what you really need to know about choosing a machine-vision lens.

Unfortunately, some machine-vision component manufacturers still prefer to perform marketing tricks with their data sheets -- for example, describing lenses as "megapixel-compatible" without describing the measured features that show the performance of their products. Such measured features could include modulation transfer function curves, whether any alignment tools are provided, the lens performance at a given working distance, and how such lenses are used with specific image sensors. Only then will system integrators be provided a complete picture of the lens products they are purchasing.

Singer learned his lesson about "magic" last Christmas. Isn't it about time other manufacturers learned their lesson about magical marketing techniques?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Drive my car

I have always been a fan of Toyota Motor Corporation. So much so, in fact, that I am the proud owner of a Toyota Corolla, an outstanding motor vehicle that has presented me with very few problems since I purchased it nine years ago. My enthusiasm for the company's products, however, diminished considerably after a recent road trip to Canada.

After disembarking from a rather hairy ride on a twin prop Bombardier Dash 8, my trusty traveling companion and intrepid sales rep Judy Leger and I fought our way through a snowstorm to the counter of Budget Rent A Car System. There, to our dismay, we were offered two choices: a Chrysler PT Cruiser or a Toyota Yaris. I chose the Yaris.

It was not until the next day that we began to realize the limitations of this particular carriage. Having the car parked outside during a blizzard did not help matters. There was no means of turning the engine on remotely and, since the car was buried under an inch of ice and six inches of snow, a creative method of gaining access was required. This involved carrying copious amounts of hot water from my room in the Hilton Montreal Airport Hotel through the snowstorm and pouring it onto the Yaris's door lock.

After half an hour, I started the engine and waited another half an hour for the car to warm up. Finally, it was time to leave. Not being a fan of my particular type of driving, Judy took the wheel of the Yaris and we sledded off to our first appointment.

Being an automatic transmission, the particular Yaris we drove had five different lever positions for first gear, second gear, one marked "3-D", and those for reverse and parking. Driving along the highway, Judy put the car into the 3-D position and throttled the machine to 100 km/hr. After driving for ten minutes, we noticed that the tachometer was registering nearly 4000 rpm. It was all rather strange. Did the car have another overdrive gear? I read the manual. It did not.

Surely, I mused, the Toyota Motor Corporation could not have designed a car in such a manner. Perhaps, I dared to suggest, the "3-D" slot the gearstick was in should be moved over to the right hand position. I did not for a moment think that my traveling companion would take such a suggestion seriously.

But she did and, after moving the gearstick to the right "D" position, the tachometer registered a more reasonable 2500 rpm. I was flabbergasted. Unlike any other automatic car I have ever driven, the third and overdrive gears were located at opposite horizontal positions on the gear change.

In his December 2008 webcast, Robert Tait of the GE Global Research Center spoke of the need for design for manufacturing. Inthat webcast, which you can view at, Tait spoke of the need for machine-vision system integrators to understand the type of product being manufactured and how inspection tasks can improve the quality control process. To ensure that automobile parts can be easily inspected, he described CAD models that can help system developers visualize manufacturing systems.

Even better, by consulting with manufacturers before such products are designed, machine-vision system developers might suggest ways of ensuring that these parts can be more easily inspected, using tools such as barcodes, fluorescent dyes, and pre-engineered part location fiducials.

While CAD models can help designers of automotive products as well as machine-vision developers, they can also be used to simulate the experience of potential customers of the end-user product. In the case of the Yaris, for example, a properly engineered CAD model would have allowed a virtual customer to sit behind the wheel and drive a CAD model of the car as if he or she were present.

In such a way, automotive manufacturers could automatically test a virtual design before any vehicle design was completed or any car manufactured. Manufacturers such as Toyota Motor Corporation could thus attain immediate user feedback and design-out any confusing modes of operation that their customers might experience.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Roll your own

Personally, I have never rolled my own cigarettes. Being on a jet plane for half my life I am privy to the wonders of duty-free stores, where I spend my hard-earned pay on Dunhill International cigarettes. These fine English tobacco products are perfectly rolled, inexpensive, and meet the requirements of my not-so-sociable habit.

But there are others who do not have the luxury of purchasing these cigarettes at duty-free prices. In England, where cigarettes cost upwards of $100 per carton, the population is forced to "roll their own." Although this habit died out somewhat in the United States in the late 1970s, there are those in England who still perform the miraculous act of purchasing a packet of Woodbine tobacco and their own roll-up papers, and manufacturing their own unfiltered cigarettes.

A friend of mine in England swears that this process results in a much more satisfying smoke and one that costs far less than paying $10 for a pack of 20 Dunhills. Although the intentions of such addicts may be dubious, the potential cost savings are enormous.

After smuggling five cartons of Dunhill cigarettes through customs on my recent visit to VISION 2008 in Stuttgart for my wayward twin brother, I began to ponder the situation further. However, it was not until I visited the largest machine-vision and image-processing tradeshow in the world that I realized the potential of the "roll your own" phenomenon.

Rather than purchase fine ready-made camera products from a host of vendors, certain companies at Stuttgart seemed to thinkthat offering developers the potential to develop their own camera products -- albeit with a little help -- was a much better idea. Indeed, this year's Vision Award prize winner, Supercomputing Systems (Zurich, Switzerland;, proposed a model for its leanXcam intelligent color camera based on the concept of open source computing for intelligent cameras that would offer developers a means to develop their own camera systems for very little cost.

Supercomputing Systems, however, was not alone in the idea of "roll your own" cameras. At the Kamiera booth (Hod Hasaron, Israel;, Yuval Nahum, vice president of sales and marketing, was also making a pitch for the concept. As a spin-off of GigaLinx, the company plans to offer what it calls Open-Cam, a business approach that allows customers to cut costs and increase flexibility by manufacturing cameras on their own rather than purchasing them off-the-shelf.

All this talk of lowering costs and offering manufacturers a way to develop their own specialized camera products certainlycaused a stir, especially among established camera vendors offering high-performance Camera Link cameras. A number of thesecommented on the validity of this business model and wondered how such companies could profit from these offerings.

Others, however -- most notably Kerry Van Iseghem of Imaging Solutions Group (Rochester, NY, USA; -- were less skeptical. Although the company doesn't offer business models such as those from Supercomputing Systems and Kamiera, the company does tailor its cameras for the needs of specialized applications.

According to Van Iseghem, the level of interest in tailoring cameras for specific industrial, medical, and military applications at VISION was very high, possibly endorsing the "roll your own" model. What may prove to be an initially successful business model, however, may or may not play out in the long term. Although the concept of open systems is good, one must question how companies that offer this type of product can compete in the long term, not just on price alone.

By endorsing such approaches, camera customers must then be forced to consider the availability of OEM components and product life cycles that may need to be supported for a number of years.

Although off-the-shelf cameras may seem more expensive and not completely tailored to a specific purpose, the "roll your own" approach may, although initially less expensive, prove a little riskier.