New Worlds: Distorted undersea photos fixed

Husband and wife win same ERC grant; Academy of Sciences' role clarified.

ERC Grant 311 (photo credit: BGU)
ERC Grant 311
(photo credit: BGU)
Underwater photography is becoming increasingly popular. For example, the BBC’s Life TV series, currently broadcast on Channel 1, has aroused much interest and includes hours of visual material on fish and undersea mammals. Now Technion-Israel Institute of Technology researchers in Haifa have found a way to take advantage of the “light field” for recreating the clear, three-dimensional structure of undersea photos without the distortion.
Scientists in the electrical engineering department explain that natural illumination underwater significantly changes in time and space. The reason is that the waves on the surface refract the light that enters the water in a way that changes all the time. The resulting light field causes the image to be distorted. This shimmering image is regarded as undesirable because it reduces the quality of the image. But Prof.
Yoav Schechner and colleagues at the Technion have found that the phenomenon can be used to create a stereoscopic photograph – taking shots of the same scene with two different cameras – just like the human eye does.
Six years ago, Schechner and doctoral student Nir Karpel suggested that to minimize distortion in underwater video films, they could process the images as if they were photographed in stable lighting conditions.
But recently, Schechner and student Yohai Svirsky came upon a better way and noted that the distortion can actually be used to produce a clearer image. The shimmering image underwater “creates a temporary and unique signature for each point in the scene,” they noted. “This signature can be identified and coordinated using two or even more cameras that simultaneously record the images. By coordinating the two images, one can restore the 3-D image to eliminate the distortion,” they found. Thus the image comes out clear and exact.
The problem of coordination in a stereoscopic image has been considered one of the most complex in computerized vision, especially when there is no texture such as in a smooth wall or sandy sea floor. The “undesirable” shimmering makes it possible to solve the coordination problem relatively easily and very accurately by using the temporary data of the light field, they said. The technique has been tested and proven successful in experiments in swimming pools and the Mediterranean Sea under different lighting and visibility conditions and presented at an international conference on computerized vision in Japan.
Last year, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev chemistry researcher Dr. Michael Meijler was one of two BGU scientists to receive a 1.4 million euro “starting grant” from the European Research Council for his “promising track-record of early achievements” at the Beersheba university. The highly-competitive grants are considered Europe’s most prestigious research awards. The ERC was founded in 2007 to “stimulate scientific excellence by supporting and encouraging the very best, truly creative scientists, scholars and engineers to be adventurous and take risks in their research.” Meijler received funding to develop a chemical platform to advance scientific understanding of the complex interactions that exist between bacteria and humans and immune system mechanisms that control bacterial populations.
Now, his wife Dr. Lital Alfonta of BGU’s biotechnology engineering department was one of two at the university to receive the same 1.4 million euro ERC grant, this time for her work on “the development of novel microbial biofuel cells and biosensors based on genetically engineered bacterial cell surface for enhanced communication with electrodes, site specific chemical modification of bacterial cell surface, and evolution and characterization of new functionalities in enzymes.” BGU said this was the fifth ERC grant it was awarded in the last three years, serving as “a confirmation of the rising quality of BGU’s researchers and research facilities.”
Although both are chemists by training, they have very different backgrounds. He is a Dutch immigrant and long-distance runner, and she is a native of Dimona who welcomes challenges. Although she was happy in the Negev development town, her parents decided to move to Rehovot so she could study chemistry – which she loved – at a high level because the local high school’s chemistry classes were not good enough. During her army service, she was in charge of training special units in detecting and decontaminating chemical and biological warfare agents.
The couple met at a conference for doctoral students, and they immediately felt “good chemistry” between them; they married 18 months later and had two girls.
Now they also have two ERC grants.
The Knesset has finally approved, without opposition, a new Israel Academy of Sciences Law that sets down clearly what responsibilities it has in advising the government about science policy. Although the academy was established 50 years ago, the original law “has a lot of dust on it that has to be fixed, and I hope this is the first step,” said MK Zevulun Orlev, who initiated the bill.
While the official job of the academy, whose building is a neighbor of Beit Hanassi in Jerusalem, is to advise the government on science matters that are of national importance, its influence in recent years has weakened. This was discussed in the 2004 State Comptroller’s Report. Thus the new law provides clear details on the relationship between the government and the academy and the bureaucratic problems that made it difficult for the academy to carry out these advisory functions.