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EDITIONS
Monday, 9 September, 2002, 10:34 GMT 11:34 UK
Big Brother watches you drive
facelab cameras
Cameras are mounted on the dashboard

Imagine being watched from the moment you get behind the wheel.

Every glance is tracked and every blink monitored, with your car warning you before you are going to have an accident.

This is now possible thanks to a system that studies the human face to detect fatigue or distraction and then alerts the driver.

The FaceLab system recently won one of Australia's most prestigious scientific awards, the Eureka prize for innovation in technology.

FaceLab has been developed Seeing Machines, an international team of 20 scientists based at Australian National University in Canberra.

They are experts in human-computer interactivity, face recognition for short.

Fighting fatigue

Since 1996 they have been developing FaceLab, a system that tracks and monitors car drivers by cameras mounted on the dashboard.

Facelab system
Head movements are tracked by the system
FaceLab can tell if you are becoming inattentive to the road by working out where you are looking, how many times a second you are blinking and angle of your head.

The first application of the system is in spotting early signs of driver fatigue.

This is a major problem in a country as large as Australia, where it can take 10 hours or more to drive between main cities.

Globally, fatigue is responsible for some 30% of the 700,000 deaths on the world's roads each year.

When you consider that a driver who has been awake for 20 hours has reactions slower than someone over the legal alcohol limit to drive, the consequences of driving tired could not be more serious.

Early warning

"We use two cameras that give us an offset from your face which gives us 3D depth information," explained Seeing Machines market developer Gavin Longhurst.


A car could detect if there is some abnormality in how the car is being driven or not driven safely

Alex Zelinsky, FaceLab
"From that we can actually find out how far away in range you are and from that we can create a 3D model of your head."

Once the computer has that three-dimensional model of the driver it tracks reference points, such as eyes and mouth, using the cameras on the dashboard.

A PC in the car boot interprets the gaze, blink and head angle information coming from the cameras.

If drivers start to display the characteristic early signs of falling asleep, the system can alert them.

At present FaceLab is in the prototype stage. Every major global car company has bought one of the systems from which to develop their own version.

Cyber cars?

At US$40,000 a go, the prototypes are beyond the pocket of consumers. But by the time they hit the market in four years' time, costs will fall to around US$200 per unit for technology the size of a cigarette packet.

Fatigue monitor developed by Seeing Machines
The system will tell you if you are tired
The first customers are expected to be haulage companies and professional drivers as they are most at risk of driver fatigue.

Over time FaceLab, like the airbag before it, could become an invaluable safety feature in each of the 50 million new cars sold yearly.

The system could also turn into an automotive Big Brother, capable of deciding whether or not you are fit to drive.

FaceLab's creator Alex Zelinsky sees a future where cyber cars make can make the call about whether or not to let their drivers out onto the road.

"A car could detect if there is some abnormality in how the car is being driven or not driven safely," he said.

"So our technology could be used to determine that a person is not checking the instruments in a correct scanning pattern, not looking at the road.

"Sure they could be factors determining that something's not right. It could be fatigue, it could be some form of impairment caused by alcohol, drugs even."

By then if the inventors have their way, everything from cars to computers will respond to the merest blink of our eye.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
By Christian Mahne
"By the time it reaches consumers in four years' time each unit will cost around $200"
See also:

19 Jul 01 | Science/Nature
20 Feb 02 | Scotland
13 Dec 01 | England
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