MIT

Researchers are developing algorithms that can generate "invisibility cloaks" for ugly objects like utility boxes.

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. 

Courtesy of Andrew Owens/CSAIL
Courtesy of Andrew Owens/CSAIL

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 wellor well enoughfrom 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.

Courtesy of MIT

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.

 

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Illustration of a house with separate activities taking place in different rooms.
    POV

    The Case for Rooms

    It’s time to end the tyranny of open-concept interior design.

  2. Life

    Having a Library or Cafe Down the Block Could Change Your Life

    Living close to public amenities—from parks to grocery stores—increases trust, decreases loneliness, and restores faith in local government.

  3. Car with Uber spray painted on it.
    Transportation

    The Dangerous Standoff Between Uber and Buenos Aires

    While Uber and Argentine officials argue over whether the company is an app or a transportation company, drivers suffer fines, violence, and instability.

  4. Still from 'Game of Thrones' showing three characters trudging through a burning city.
    Design

    King’s Landing Was Always a Miserable Dump

    Game of Thrones’ destruction of the capital of the Seven Kingdoms revealed a city of mean living conditions and rampant inequality.

  5. Transportation

    Flying Cars Are Real—And They’re Not Bad for the Climate

    They might even be greener than electric ones.