(SBIR NGA11-002) Novel Methods of Interacting with Overhead Imagery

Chernobyl, April 2009 by NASA Goddard Photo (cc) (From Flickr)
Chernobyl, April 2009 by NASA Goddard Photo (cc) (From Flickr)

I sometimes look over the latest SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) topics that come out to see if there’s anything interesting. Normally the DOD SBIRs (Army, Navy, Air Force, etc. agencies) have some way out stuff they are looking to fund.

Better photo analysis

Something about this National GeoSpatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) SBIR topic caught my eye. Essentially what they are looking for is more ways to interact with images that are taken from overhead.

In the old days, film would be laid on a light table and a scope would be hauled over a spot to examine it in detail. As the whole photo was in front of the analyst, they had before them an entire overview of the spot to lend context to their detailed analysis.

Today, this is all done on desktop view stations using mouse/tracking pads for photo manipulation and examination. However, this approach limits analyst activities to using one or another hand on a 2D surface to analyze a scene. What NGA is looking for is a better approach that uses more of a person’s capabilities to help navigate and analyze a scene in detail.

Enter the iPad

I can’t help but wonder if this couldn’t be an application for the iPad.

I foresee an approach where the iPad is used as a sort of magnifying glass for a photo/image using a a projection of the scene on a floor or a table. The analyst positions the iPad over the scene to view a particular portion in detail. The iPad could be on a suspension system which records the movements in 3d and could provide precise relative positioning of the iPad to the photo to detect where on the scene the iPad is positioned and magnify the view. Of course the analyst could use the standard iPad hand gestures to zoom in or out in the scene. Possibly, the iPad vertical or z-position could zoom in or out of the whole scene leaving magnification the same and then other orientations could move the scene underneath the iPad/analyst (angle relative to the scene).

Using a suspension system is probably easiest and to interface with the iPad app but there’s no reason some sort of WiFi or GPS augmented/detailed location triangulation couldn’t provide the same sorts of information. It would seem to me that providing an X,Y, and Z location could be had with such a system and perhaps even the orientation of the screen could be supplied to provide a proper overlay of the scene being shown.

The nice thing about such a system (without the suspension) is that it would potentially work for multiple analysts using multiple iPads and possibly other IOS devices. Such a capability would not be unlike what was available with real film and magnifying glasses.The other advantage to having the iPad or any tablet above a simulated light table is that the analyst could look around the iPad to see more context if needed.

One concern might be the size of the iPad screen but I am sure this could be changed with the right incentive. Of course now that Android tablets are out’ another possibility is to use one of these. But I am not sure how the hand gestures work with the Android tablets.

So what’s an SBIR program

SBIRs are research topics that the Federal government wish to fund. The government sets aside 2% of their R&D budget ($Bs) to devote to small businesses (<500 employees).

I don’t want to discourage anyone from doing an SBIR but I found the effort to do a proposal to be significant and after 7 submissions on different topics with 0 successes, I stopped. However, I still find some of the topics interesting reading.

Commercial applications for a tablet magnifyer

I suppose there are plenty of other opportunities for such a device in photo analysis. The device/app would be useful for commercial satellite imagery, lithographic prints of electronic circuitry, and any large format photographic work that required detailed analysis. In any event, now that 16M pixel cameras are becoming common place it would seem to be a growing market.



What really drives storage innovation

Ongoing waves of consolidation remind me of what really drives storage innovation – companies willing to experiment. Startups can only succeed when their products can engage the marketplace.

Startups risk everything to develop technology an innovation or two that can change the world. But what they ultimately discover, what they truly need is some large and/or small company’s willingness to experiment with new and untried technology. Such market engagement is essential to understand their technology’s rough edges, customer requirements, and distribution options.

Recently, I was informed that some large companies prefer to work with startups because they can better control any emerging technology direction. Also, their problems are big enough that typically no one solution can solve them. Startups allow them to cobble together (multiple) solutions that ultimately can solve their problem.

From the small company’s perspective the question becomes how to attract and begin the dialogue with innovative customers willing to invest time and money in startups. But, the real problem is knowing enough about a customer’s environment to know if suitable prospects for their technology exist. Armed with this knowledge, targeted marketing approaches can be applied to ultimately get a hearing with the customer.

However, what’s missing is a forum for large and small companies to describe their environment and more importantly, their serious, chronic problems. Mostly, this has been done informally or on an ad hoc basis in the past, but some formality around this could really benefit storage innovation at least from startups.

I see many possibilities to solve this, ways that companies could provide information on their environment and identify problems needing solutions. Such possibilities include:

  • an electronic forum something like Innocentive.com where companies could post problems and solicit solutions
  • an award to solve a particularly pressing problem like Xprize.org where a group of companies, perhaps in one vertical combine together to offer a significant award to help solve a particular nasty storage/IT problem
  • an organization of sorts like SNIA end user council that could provide anonymous information on IT environments and problems needing solutions.
  • a Small Business Innovation Research-like (see SBIR.gov) that could provide a list of problems soliciting solutions

The problem with SNIA end user council and SBIR-like approaches is the lack of anonyminity, the problems with an Xprize-like award is the inability for any one organization to fund the award. All of which is why I prefer an innocentive.com-like approach, maybe better targeted to IT issues and less targeted on basic and materials science. Finally, perhaps another, unforeseen approach that might even work better – comments?

Why big storage vendors can’t be enticed to work on something like this is another conundrum and probably subject for a future post.