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MIT researchers can listen to your conversation by watching your potato chip bag

August 5, 2014 | Telepresence Options

MIT_Visual_microphone

Story and images by Rachel Feltman / The Washington Post

Imagine someone listening in to your private conversation by filming the bag of chips sitting on the other side of the room. Oddly specific, I know, but researchers at MIT did just that: They've created an algorithm that can reconstruct sound (and even intelligible speech) with the tiny vibrations it causes on video.

When sound hits an object, it makes distinct vibrations. "There's this very subtle signal that's telling you what the sound passing through is," said Abe Davis, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and first author on the paper. But the movement is tiny - sometimes as small as thousandths of a pixel on video. It's only when all of these signals are averaged, Davis said, that you can extract sound that makes sense. By observing the entire object, you can filter out the noise.

This particular study grew out of an earlier experiment at MIT, led by Michael Rubinstein, now a postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft Research New England. In 2012, Rubinstein amplified tiny variations in video to detect things like the skin color change caused by the pumping of blood. Studying the vibrations caused by sound was a logical next step. But getting intelligible speech out of the analysis was surprising, Davis said.

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