Disguising eyesores like sidewalk utility boxes isn't usually a big priority for city governments. The work—if it's done at all—has sometimes fallen to enterprising local artists. Recently, however, computer scientists are working on a more high-tech approach.
Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and a few collaborating institutions have developed an algorithm that can automatically generate camouflage coverings to hide physical objects. The algorithm essentially takes in a set of photos capturing multiple perspectives of a scene, analyzes them, and outputs a surface pattern that can camouflage an object placed in that setting.
And the technique seems to be working. In a new study, the researchers timed how long it took human volunteers in Amazon’s Mechanical Turk system to detect a camouflaged box placed in different settings. The result? More than three seconds on average. That means you probably won’t notice the box in a passing glance.
Take a look at these examples—in each scene, try to find a virtual 3D box that’s been covered with patterns generated from the algorithm. The video below shows even more examples.
According to Andrew Owens, an MIT graduate student and the project’s lead researcher, it’s possible to make an object essentially invisible from a single viewpoint. The challenge his team is trying to tackle, however, is generating camouflage patterns that work well—or well enough—from all angles. In trying to do so, the current algorithm has to decide which detection cues (such as how well the object’s outline blends into the background, or how distorted the object looks) are more important to conceal in a certain scene.
Additional challenges moving forward are revealed in the team’s preliminary test with a real-life box, placed as pictured below on a book shelf, which they covered with a camouflage pattern printed on paper. As you can see in these images, real-life conditions introduce new factors to consider, namely lighting conditions and shadows.
Besides hiding outdoor eyesores like utility boxes and air-conditioning condensers, Owens hopes his team’s camouflaging technique could also help make interior spaces more pleasant.
“Maybe there’s an object that performs a really important function but makes the room seem cluttered, “ Owens explains in a phone interview. He says architects and designers can then analyze how people walk through and perceive the room, feed all that information to an algorithm similar to theirs, and figure out the best way to disguise that unsightly object.