Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Zensor becomes UAA's first start up company, long lifespan sensors for monitoring remote property

Electrical engineering professor John Lund with sensor.
The University of Alaska Board of Regents announced Friday that the University of Alaska Anchorage launched its first ever startup company, Zensor™. The company was established in February 2013 by UAA Vice Provost for Research and Graduate Studies Dr. Helena Wisniewski, and faculty inventor Dr. John Lund, a UAA electrical engineering professor.

Zensor™ LLC, a Seawolf Holdings company, offers a new generation of wireless sensors for use in remote monitoring, asset management, surveillance and security. The long-lasting sensors––boasting a 50-plus year lifespan––present several advantages over current competitors on the market: no batteries required, effective with a small power source, maintenance free, low cost and more.

The idea for Zensor™ came from Professor Lund’s observation of remote monitoring needs for the maintenance and management of assets in the harsh arctic environment. “Zensor™ sensors are intended to make monitoring remote infrastructure cheap, easy and reliable,” Lund says. He explains that the small sensors are filled with tiny circuits that can be customized to detect humidity, water flow, temperature, tilt, sound and a number of other useful criteria based on the customer’s needs.

Dr. Wisniewski developed a business infrastructure for commercialization of innovative faculty and student research, which was approved by the Board of Regents in August 2012. This infrastructure includes Seawolf Holdings and Seawolf Venture Fund, which provides seed money for startups.

“This is an exciting time for UAA,” says UAA Chancellor Tom Case. “This endeavor is just one example of how our faculty are exploring ideas and practical solutions to local and global challenges. We are a leading force, making a difference in new technologies and new hope for the future.”

Read more about Professor Lund’s work. For more information about Zensor™, contact Dr. Helena Wisniewski at hswisniewski@uaa.alaska.edu or Dr. John Lund at jalund@uaa.alaska.edu.

2013 INNOVATE award winners and their new projects

Congratulations to the second round of winners in the UAA INNOVATE Award. The 2013 winners were announced at a special event in December 2012, and recipients are hard at work on their projects now.

The purpose of the INNOVATE Award is to inspire faculty research, entrepreneurship and creative activity that will lead to publication in a peer review journal or a creative event, external research funding or intellectual property. The INNOVATE Award was created in 2011 by Vice Provost for Research and Graduate Studies Helena Wisniewski, to stimulate new research and intellectual property.

In her opening remarks, Vice Provost Wisniewski made note of the first year accomplishments for INNOVATE Award winners, at least as of Dec. 14, 2012. They included:

•    11 proposals submitted for external funding
•    As of Dec. 3, 2012, three had already received awards, for a total of $350,000
•    Six submissions in process to peer review journals
•    Four invention disclosures, two evolving into patents pending and two on the way
•    A Scholar in Residence
•    A method developed for image decompression that outperformed the government's own standard
•    Nine presentations at international conferences
•    The first members of the Patent Wall of Fame named, Kenrick Mock and Bogdan Hoanca.

The entire evening of awards was podcast by University Advancement and can be heard at the UAA podcast page here.

At the evening social, Vice Provost Wisniewski invited four recipients from the previous year to provide short summaries of their projects. You can hear their individual summaries within the podcast at the approximate times listed:

•    Khrystyne Duddleston, Biological Sciences, arctic ground squirrels host-gut-microbiome interactions (8:29)
•    John Lund, Electrical Engineering, ultra-long lifespan wireless sensors (13:37)
•    Colin McGill, Chemistry, Alaska bog blueberries (21:00)
•    Don Rearden, College Preparatory & Developmental Studies, a whaling novel (27:40)

In introducing the next round of winners, Vice Provost Wisniewski said 35 proposals were submitted and 16 awards would be made. The new round of applications revealed three notable facts, she said:
•    The diversity of areas and disciplines applying for awards had increased, signaling interest across campus
•    More proposals were interdisciplinary
•    Proposals were received from every one of UAA's colleges and schools.

And without further delay, the 2013 INNOVATE Award recipients and their projects are:

•    Colin McGill, Chemistry and Co-PI Eric Murphy, Psychology, "Malate Supplementation: A Dietary Intervention to Improve Spatial Memory in Aged Rats."
•    Aaron Dotson, Civil Engineering and Co-PI LeeAnn Munk, Geology, "Source Identification and Complexation of Copper in an Urban Environment."
•    Jeffrey Callahan, Construction Management, Justin McVaney, Construction & Design Technology, and Co-PI Kenrick Mock, Computer Science and Engineering, "Augmented Reality, BIM and GIS for Mobile Platforms in Architecture, Engineering and Construction."
•    Khrystyne Duddleston, Biological Sciences and Co-PI Paddy Sullivan, Environmental and Natural Resources Institute, "Importance of the Microbial Community as a Driver of Tree Performance and Treeline Position in Northwest Alaska."
•    Mark McCoy, Chemistry, "Development of a Point of Care Assay for Vitamin D."
•    Jonathan Alevy, Economics, and Co-PI Michael Young, Psychology, Illinois Institute of Technology, "Seasonality and Economic Behavior."
•    Jill Flanders Crosby, Theatre and Dance, and Co-PI Brian Jeffery, Theatre and Dance, "Secrets Under the Skin Art Installation."
•    John Lund, Electrical Engineering, "Wireless Sensor Nodes with Advanced Signal Analysis Capabilities for Expanded Sensor Network Applications."
•    Scott Hamel, Civil Engineering, "Design and Evaluation of Thin-shell Latex-modified Concrete Barrel Roof Units."
•    Kenrick Mock, Computer Science and Engineering and Co-PIs Bogdan Hoanca, Computer Information Systems, Stephanie Bauer and Raymond Anthony, Philosophy, and Yasuhiro Ozuru, Psychology, "Revealing Human Moral Decision Making Through Eye Tracking."
•    Joey Yang, Civil Engineering "Carbon Fiber Tape-Based Anti-Icing Technology for Wind Turbine Blades."
•    Dr. Andrew Puckett, Physics and Astronomy, and Co-PI Travis Rector, Physics and Astronomy, "Seed Funding for the Production of the Definitive Aurora Borealis Planetarium Show."
•    Jonathan Stecyk, Biological Sciences, "The Turtle Heart: A non-traditional model to understand and potentially treat human cardiovascular disease."
•    Jennifer Stone, English, "Language, Literature, and Technology in Alaska."
•    Patrick Tomco, Chemistry and Co-PIs Dr. Mark McCoy, Chemistry, and Steven Seefeldt, UAF Cooperative Extension Service, "Characterization of Aminopryralid Degradation in Alaska Soils."
•    Liliya Vugmeyster, Chemistry, and Co-PI Dmitry Ostrovsky, Mathematical Sciences, "Computational Modeling of Protein Flexibility via Bridging Polymer and Protein Sciences."

Watch for stories and updates on these works in progress at the UAA INNOVATE blog and in Seawolf Weekly , UAA's weekly newsletter.

Monday, February 4, 2013

INNOVATE celebrates its first birthday with reports from all 13 of the 2012 award recipients

Late in 2012, just two weeks before announcing the next round of 2013 INNOVATE award winners, Dr. Helena Wisniewski, vice provost for research and dean of the Graduate School, hosted a reception and information sharing session among the 13 winners from 2012.

Here is the list of 2012 winners and their projects.

Instrumented Mouthguard – Dr. Anthony Paris, Mechanical Engineering, and Co-PIs Dr. Jennifer Brock and Dr. John Lund, “Evaluation of Instrumentation to Assess Accelerations of the Head Due to Soccer Ball Heading.” Assisting the team were then-current mechanical engineering students Grant Birmingham and Lilan Smith.


The team demonstrated how INNOVATE funding allowed them to refine a next-generation instrumented mouthguard that effectively measures linear and angular accelerations of an athlete’s head, in this case, a soccer player heading balls. Refinements included decreasing the number of accelerometers in the mouthpiece from nine to six, streamlining their design and placement for ease of use in the mouth, and successfully determining accurate linear and angular accelerations.

This is an important step in the quest to develop accurate tools to measure the magnitude and nature of head impacts with the aim of understanding the biomechanics of head injury.

Ecosystem carrying capacity for caribou - Dr. Don Spalinger, Biological Sciences, and CO-PIs Dr. John Lund and Dr. Herb Schroeder, "The Trophic Dynamics of Nutrient Cycling in Western Alaska Tundra Ecosystems.

Graduate students Kate Legner and Brian Atkinson on Unimak.
INNOVATE funding allowed this team to acquire high resolution satellite imagery of Unimak Island in the Aleutians to map habitat. This island, just 72 miles long and 60 miles wide, is home to a declining caribou herd. To better understand their decline, Spalinger and his team are analyzing what the caribou eat. One thing they aren't eating is lichen, usually a normal staple of the caribou diet. It doesn't exist on Unimak. So, what are they eating?

Analyzing what the landscape offers, and through chemical analysis of what the caribou are eating, will lead to a better understanding of Unimak Island's carrying capacity for caribou.

The island work served as a testing ground for technique and approach. Now, the team will take their work to more herds throughout Western Alaska.

Download a PDF of their Nov. 30, 2012 presentation.

Long-lasting, cheap sensors make watching remote Alaska easier - Dr. John Lund, Electrical Engineering, and Co-PI Dr. Todd Peterson, "Ultra-Long Lifespan Wireless Sensore Devices for Asset Management."

Low-cost sensors to monitor important infrastructure.
The practical nature of this team's innovation is obvious in Alaska, where plenty of infrastructure is out of sight, from remote roads and bridges to pipelines and buildings.

They note that both in Alaska and nationwide, infrastructure from the building boom of the 1950s is starting to fail. In remote locations, often catastrophic failure is the first indication of a problem. Emergency repairs are costly and more and more, plastic and steel materials are used, with half the lifespan of concrete.

Their solution? Add a basic, wireless sensor requiring no battery. Cost? $16 per device.

Download a PDF of this team's presentation.
When you can't be there: Cheap, solar-powered sensors  to monitor remote Alaska infrastructure, January 2012

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Angel Investors and UAA: a plan to work together


UAA's Dr. Helena W. Wisniewski delivered  a talk at Anchorage's 49th State Angel Fund Forum, hosted by the Municipality of Anchorage and the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation on May 17, 2012.  (Thanks to the Mayor's office for recording her talk, which we share with you on UAA's INNOVATE blog.)

Wisniewski is UAA's Vice Provost for Research and Graduate Studies and Dean of the Graduate School. She brings an extensive background in higher education, industry and defense, and the entrepreneurial arena of start-ups.

Her talk covers infrastructure that UAA is establishing for investors to share in the development of patents and intellectual property created through research at UAA. She touched on many examples of current work funded with INNOVATE money in January, 2012 including: the Arctic squirrels use in the study of human obesity, the special compounds in Alaska blueberries that may provide intervention in demensia and Alzheimer's research, cheap solar-powered sensors to monitor distant infrastructure and an instrumented mouthguard that can detect impact to the brain -- useful in athletics and war-time situations where head trauma is a potential, among others.

The Municipality's receipt of $13.2M from the U.S. Department of Treasury's Small Small Business Credit Initiative prompted the summit. This fund is known as the 49th State Angel Fund. UAA Chancellor Tom Case is on the 49th State Angel Fund Advisory Committee.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Getting a better fix on head injuries with a "smart" mouthguard

Paris with undergraduate research assistant Grant Birmingham.
When I tracked down mechanical engineer Anthony Paris in late May to catch up on an engineering INNOVATE project, we quickly migrated from his office over to a nearby conference room. The whiteboard there was covered with a lacy blue scrawl, an eruption of calculations that drew the eye and held it. But we didn’t talk about those at first. 

Instead, every few minutes he’d dash back to his office and return with something mechanical: a curved spine with an embedded rod on the side to reinforce it; two big white plastic blocks attached to one another by curved rods, simulating the lumbar spine attached to the pelvis; or a mouthpiece with three sugar cube-sized attachments that looked like something a dentist might try and shove into an unwilling mouth.

His current INNOVATE award will further research on the instrumented mouthguard. The funding bought him two portable force plates to continue testing the latest-generation device.

Paris is quick to point out that credit for his recent successes is shared with his INNOVATE Co-PIs, engineering professors John Lund and Jennifer Brock. Lund engineered the electronics and Brock wrote proposals and synthesized data, including high-speed video analysis.

First UAA iteration of a "smart" mouthguard.

A process of constant refinement

On the first iteration created at UAA, the team used an 18-year-old veteran soccer player to head balls with the mouthguard in place, recording impact to skull. ME undergraduate Tessa Kara was funded through the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarship (OURS) for this first round of testing.

Now, with a more compact second generation mouthpiece — the wireless transmitter and data logger are separate from the mouthpiece, so it’s slim and more compact — he’s just finished a round of testing with another subject, this time a young man. Over the course of two sessions, the test subject headed soccer balls 10 times at five different velocities, ranging from 8 to 28 miles per hour.

The testing went well. “We got great data!” Paris said, sounding both excited and relieved. “The device worked flawlessly."

Birmingham with the slimmer second-gen model.
The next step comes this summer, when he’ll position a third tester on the portable force plates so that when he maneuvers to head the ball, the force plates will also be gathering data on the interaction between the body and the ground. He’ll then have a complete loop, soccer ball to head, feet to floor.

The force plates echo earlier work with a biomedical team in Boise, Idaho on the biomechanics of soccer heading. There, a single force plate was permanently installed in a gym floor, and Paris dropped a soccer ball 35 feet onto a bowling ball positioned on the force plate, the curves of which duplicated those of the human head and simulated the impact between ball and head.

Increasing concern over concussive head injuries

All this effort is in service of getting detailed and accurate measurement of impact on the human skull. There is much public debate about appropriate treatment for sports concussions, from The New York Times topics page on football and head injuries to a story this April in the Anchorage Daily News about a local teen who experienced a serious concussion during an indoor flag football practice. New York University even hosted a debate earlier this month on banning college football due to head injuries.

For Paris, the cause of impact is less important than accurately measuring the accelerations of the head due to impact. In fact, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) deployed against soldiers in war are another critical application.

“Do accelerations of the head determine the type of brain injury someone has,” he asks. “Can they help determine how you would treat it?”

Consider a blow to the head during snowboarding. “How do you decide on return to play?" Paris asks. "How do you treat them? The same questions are true for boxing, IED blasts in the military and head-to-head impact in soccer or football."

 “Our goal is to continue development and make the instrumented mouthpiece small enough to be useful and practical in all these situations." Birmingham and two other undergraduate research assistants,  Lilan Smith and Kaelin Ellis, have joined Paris in data gathering.

Deriving angular accelerations: 'There's a bit of math there.'

What they measure

Paris and the INNOVATE team use accelerometers on the mouthpiece to measure linear accelerations. From those, they are able to mathematically determine angular accelerations. (That’s the poetic blue scrawl on the conference room whiteboard. Yes, “There’s a little bit of math there,” Paris quips.) 

What’s the difference between the two types of accelerations? For linear, think of the head moving forward and backward, side to side or up and down. For angular accelerations, think of the top of the head tipping backward, the chin coming up. In aviation, this is known as roll, pitch and yaw.

                                      Research includes video analysis of ball-to-head impact.

A visual Paris employs to explain the difference is a glass half-full of iced tea. Push it side to side and ice and liquid moves with the glass. That’s linear movement. 

Spin the glass, and the ice and liquid stay immobile while the glass moves around it. That’s angular movement. 

The accelerometers he’s using, by the way, are similar to what you’ll find in your iPhone, car airbags or Wii handheld devices. Even runners use them in their shoes. Part of what’s making the development of an instrumented mouthpiece possible is the decreasing size and cost of accelerometers.

Sports where helmets are common have an advantage, Paris says. The data logger and transmitter can be installed in the helmet; even football helmets with mouth guards attached offer an advantage because wiring to the transmitter could pass through the attachment mechanism. 

Boxing, like many sports performed without a helmet, offers more challenge.

But since lots of contact sports require mouthguards anyway, why not use them more fully to measure impact to the skull? Paris aims to refine the mouthguard into a smaller and smaller device.

“John Lund said it best,” Paris recalls. “ ‘In 20 years, nobody will be putting a dumb piece of plastic in their mouth.’ ” 

Why would you, when you could use a “smart” mouthguard that delivers nuanced information about the impact status of your brain?

Paris is enthusiastic about the capabilities of the new mouthguard and the acceleration data his team is collecting. He’s exploring patent opportunities now. 

Honored with an Exemplar Award for student mentoring 

This spring, Paris was singled out for a special honor given to faculty who do an exceptional job mentoring students outside the traditional classroom setting. The presentation took place during the Undergraduate Research Symposium this spring; Brock accepted the award for Paris, who was obligated to attend committee meetings for engineering curriculum updates at the time. 

It was at least fitting that she received it for him; she had nominated him after witnessing his work with undergraduates. In her letter, she wrote, "He encourages his students to set high goals, and it is worth noting that two of his research mentees have been accepted at top graduate programs, one at Columbia University in New York and another at the University of Oxford in England."

One of the groups he mentored developed a spinal rod bender, used during back surgery, for which a patent application has been filed. 

“He’s a one-man undergraduate research program!” Brock said when she happened by the conference room where we were talking. She even arranged to frame the award so it could hang on his wall instead of compete for space on a jam-packed desk.
Julia DelSignore, left.

Andrew Cochrane, right,Tessa Kara, center.
Two students also nominated him for the Exemplar. One was Andrew Cochrane, who double majored in mechanical and electrical engineering and received the $2,000 Discovery Award for his academic achievements. 

The other was Julia DelSignore, who collaborated on early soccer impact testing and received a Discovery grant to help with travel expenses to present research at the 12th Pan American Congress of Applied Mechanics in Port of Spain, Trinidad. DelSignore is pictured at left with professors Paris and Brock during the Trinidad conference. You can download a PDF of their paper here.

Anthony Paris
Anthony Paris joined UAA's faculty as an assistant professor of engineering in 2007. He was a research assistant professor at Boise State University in Idaho before that. He earned his B.S.  and M.S. in mechanical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, and his doctorate in theoretical and applied mechanics from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

When he’s not in the lab gathering data or working calculations on the whiteboard, Paris can be found practicing yoga at a local Anchorage studio.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Funding story: A novel encompassing Alaska's three whaling eras

New England whalers like the one above sailed Alaska waters in the 1800s.
Novelist and UAA professor Don Rearden received INNOVATE funding this year to support research for his latest creative endeavor, a novel about whales that traverses the three great epochs of Alaska whaling history – pre-contact, commercial whaling of the 1800s, and modern-day subsistence whaling under the governance of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission.

“The good thing about getting this award is that it allowed me to say, ‘I have this project I am working on, and the university is sponsoring me,' ” Rearden says.

That support helped him secure a Scholar in Residence position for a week this summer at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachussetts, where he begins gathering some of the historical detail that will color his work.

Why a novel for such an epic history? And, frankly, is there room for another after Melville’s Moby-Dick? And just how gutsy was it to go after INNOVATE funding for creative writing in a competitive field choked with scientists anxious for laboratory research space and time.

Rearden says that for the most part, he chose fiction because the documentary non-fiction work on whaling already had been done. He cites John Bockstoce and his 1986 work from University of Washington Press, Whales, Ice & Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic, among others.

But the idea of a fictionalized history had been alive in him for some time. For one thing, he and close friend and colleague Shannon Gramse had tossed around the idea of a screenplay that would cover Alaska’s great whaling eras. He’s moving ahead on a novel because the story is just so big, he says, and novels reach a wider audience than screenplays. And besides, “We’ll probably still do a screenplay once the novel is done,” he says. And he hopes to convince poet Gramse to provide some poems for the novel.

Power of story

But for Rearden, there is an even more personally compelling reason to choose fiction over non-fiction. In his view, it contains the power of story – elements of character, voice and predicament that can reel an audience in  -- right through to the last page.

Herman Melville
Certainly Melvillle knew that, and yes, his famous Moby-Dick intimidates Rearden.

“That’s an amazing work, so yes it’s scary,” Rearden acknowledges. That’s why Rearden plans to give Melville a nod right upfront in his own novel.

But Rearden brings something unique to this Northern whale writing adventure. His boyhood spent in rural Alaska with his schoolteacher mother and law-enforcement dad exposed him to the hold that an active spirit life can have among villagers. He found it magical and life changing.

He arrived in Akiak as a second grader. And while some of the boys were compelled to box him about when he first arrived, he found village life not just satisfactory, but wholly engaging. He was thrilled to be out riding dog sleds and learning how to set fish traps under the ice.

But, even more, there were the mythical stories everyone told,  “…that idea of ghosts and spirits -- this other world that is just really real for everyone.” Remote communities then had fewer distractions … “we had just one phone in the whole village,” he remembers. The spirits and monsters that peopled local stories thrived, and quickly turned Rearden into a serious student of the culture.

Even in elementary school, he knew he would be a storyteller. “I read a lot. And even before I could be, I knew I wanted to be a writer.”

His family returned to his birth state, Montana, but they were back in Alaska by the time Rearden hit eighth grade. His affection for the relationships and shared village culture – transmitted in stories -- only grew.

“I am a firm believer that all that was right with humanity up to 10,000 years ago was because of story. The way to be a human being. We have lost that.

“We don’t tell stories that are meaningful anymore, that people can learn how to be better people from. That’s why I am drawn to fiction, and I’ll try to do that.”

Therein lies a hint to the novel’s characters that he’s currently searching out. What voice will be the storyteller? And what role will a whale play?

The oldest mammals 

Conceivably, says Rearden, a whale that spanned all three of these eras could still be swimming gracefully through the ocean. Some whales are commonly thought to live at least 100 years.

But in a 2001 column, science writer Ned Rozell cited research that proposed lifespans much longer than that. In, “Bowhead Whales May be the Oldest Mammals,” scientists aged whales through chemicals in their eyes and from embedded ivory harpoons discovered by hunters. The oldest whale they studied could potentially have been 245 years old – a survivor through early indigenous whaling and the East Coast industrialized fleets of the 1800s.

Abandonment of the Whalers in the Arctic in 1871, from an old print.
Then, questing after lucrative whale oil, whaling fleets ventured farther and farther north, until September, 1871, when 32 of some 41 ships got stuck hard fast in the Arctic ice.  More than 1,200 people survived, but the catastrophe -- and the simultaneous discovery of kerosene as an alternative fuel -- delivered a crippling blow to that whaling era.

Not lost to Rearden’s fertile imagination is the circling back to the Arctic that the current Beaufort and Chukchi Sea oil exploration means. The collapse of the fishing fleets of the 1800s coincided with the discovery of fossil fuels and the rapid industrialization of modern times.

Now that same enormous appetite for energy has brought us back to the home of the bowheads, home of that once sought-after lamp oil.

The draw for Rearden to a whaling novel includes a fascination for what science is currently learning about whales – their intelligence and the capacity some have for language and culture.

But there is more: the power of the whale in Alaska Native culture.

“Some of it just fascinates me,” Rearden says, “How story  affects behavior. So, when it’s whaling season, everyone gets along in the village. There are no bad thoughts, no arguments, because the whale would be able to sense that. There are stories about that, and I’ll definitely work with that idea.”

The notion of an old whale that has survived both pre-contact and industrialized whaling, a whale that has lived that long and then allows itself to be taken in the third, subsistence era – “it’s because something was right about that,” Rearden says, “for the whale to give itself. “

Perhaps we are coming full circle, he thinks, “to where we advance enough that we have the understanding of whales that these ancient people did. Maybe we are regaining something that was lost.”

'There was an asterisk'

And finally, what about that question of hutzpah, a creative writer going after research funds from the INNOVATE awards.

Rearden smiles. “There was that asterisk on the application, and it said the research could be for creative works. And I thought, could I get that?” He decided to try.

But he also did it for his students. He teaches newcomers who need help with the writing process through the College Preparatory and Developmental Studies. He also teaches the novel Ishmael by Daniel Quinn in the University Honors College.

And he sits on a committee that awards undergraduate research grants. Sometimes awards in the humanities go unasked for, and un-awarded.  “I am always telling my students they really should apply, for their creative work. I couldn’t be a hypocrite myself, and not apply.”

To Rearden, his INNOVATE award signals that UAA, which prides itself in being a home for research, definitely casts its support to work in the creative arts.
Don Rearden

Don Rearden is a new dad this year, father to young Atticus. His wife, Annette, is a professor in the School of Nursing. After his long stays in rural Alaska sharing and enjoying Native foods, he confesses a fondness for Akutaq, Eskimo ice cream, and being an accomplished hunter of moose and caribou. He has worked at UAA seven years, and has his master's degree in Creative Writing. His first novel, The Raven's Gift, was published in 2011.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

When less is more: New image compression success could save millions

We all know the pain of sending a too-large photo via email, only to have it bounce back into our can’t-send file.

Or how about on the other end -- the agony of pasting a too-small photo into a too-big web hole, and ending up with a fun-house pixelated version of the image.  The photo was so compressed, too much of its visual information disappeared.

Now imagine you are NASA, trying to capture high-resolution images of the Martian landscape and then transmit them across millions of miles of space over limited bandwidth channels – losing as little information as possible while achieving as much compression as possible.  Even with our narrow experience doing Earth-bound photo transmission, we can tell this is complex and really hard.

If you are Frank Moore, a computer science professor at UAA, this is your problem to solve, which you happen to be quite excited about.

That’s because Moore has had recent success “squeezing” images through compression, but retaining high resolution, results that promise to go beyond the best NASA has ever seen.

First, a brief lesson in compression. To compress an image, you begin by substituting a coefficient for every pixel. Nothing is compressed at this stage, just transformed. Next these coefficients can be compressed in waves so that the information is statistically concentrated in fewer and fewer coefficients. The result is smaller files that are easier and cheaper to store or transmit.

But, there is a trade off. On the other end, when you receive the image, it needs to be reconstructed as accurately as possible. Somewhere, there’s a sweet spot between high-resolution images and file size, and Frank Moore has found it.

State-of-the-art methods use “wavelet transforms” for compressing and reconstructing images. NASA created its own family of wavelets called ICER.  They use “lossy” compression (that’s right, you intentionally lose some of the visual information in exchange for a smaller file).

Notice the pixelation in this ICER transformed Mars detail.
Moore’s work has shown that you can use an evolutionary algorithm to optimize new sets of numbers that correspond to new transforms capable of outperforming these contemporary wavelets.

He started out by showing that --  for an equal amount of compression --  you can significantly reduce the error when reconstructing the image. Then, he showed that -- accepting a given amount of error -- you can reduce the compressed file size further.

His most recent work has, for the first time (drum roll here...), reduced both the compressed file size AND the error rate. Better still, file size and error rates only improve with additional levels of compression. "That's not something that happened with earlier results," Moore said.

He has numbers to demonstrate how his error rate and file size evolve with added levels of compression.
  • The best single-level compression yields a 26.8 percent reduction in resolution error, but only a 3.3 percent reduction in file size.
  • At three levels of compression, the best-evolved transform yields a 45.9 percent error reduction, with file sizes 13 percent smaller.
  • But the big success came with five levels of resolution. Here, errors were reduced by 50 percent and the file size was 28 percent smaller.
Moore's version shows less error in image reconstruction.
The worldly applications for this compression and reconstruction success are huge. Smaller files that still effectively reconstruct an accurate image mean cheaper storage and transmission costs, something government and industry need and want.

Medical imaging is a good example. The price of storage and transmission has been billowing at an annual rate of 50 percent; billions could be saved with cheaper but still accurate compression methods.

Other applications, for us mere Earthlings? Moore says his new transforms could produce higher-quality mp3s, instead of the hollow-sounding versions we can now cost-effectively create.

He’ll use his recently awarded INNOVATE funds to further his evolutionary computations, applying his NASA success to an international compression standard.

Read more about his work in his own words; five projects are posted on his faculty website.

Frank Moore with "The Great One."
Frank Moore is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He has taught computer science, computer engineering and electrical engineering courses since 1997, and has more than six years of industry experience developing software for a wide variety of military research and development projects.

His current research uses evolutionary computation to optimize transforms for lossy image compression and reconstruction, funded by a NASA EPSCoR CAN for Research award. Moore has published more than 75 peer-reviewed journal articles, conference papers and technical reports.