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Better Than Barcode? 2007-02-16

Posted by clype in Gizmo.

Fujitsu has developed a method of embedding data invisibly within printed pictures.

The procedure, commonly known as ‘steganography’, will allow numerical information to be hidden within a colour image and accessed via a camera.
Steganograghy involves altering an image in a way that cannot be perceived by the human eye, but which can be detected electronically. Fujitsu’s technique can apparently hide a 12-digit number in a 1-centimetre square.

This would allow data such as phone numbers or a URL to be planted into a poster, a magazine advertisement or business card. To extract the information, users would just have to point their camera phone or PDA at the image — as long as the device was configured to find the hidden message.

Fujitsu says that consumers could even use its procedure to add embedded information to personal photos and print them out at home.

The Japanese manufacturer is now working to make its procedure easier to use. It is also eager to collaborate with mobile phone companies and content providers to get the technology to market.

Fujitsu is claiming that this is the first time technology has been developed to hide numerical data within printed images, but many other IT companies are also working on steganography. A demonstration of a similar technique took place at the bi-annual IDF show 2003, running on Intel’s reference cellphone platform.

Printed images may soon contain hidden data that mobile phones can see and respond to. A telephone number embedded in a CD cover picture will be able to be dialled. And a poster image containing a URL invisible to the human eye will be seen by a PDA camera and the website displayed on its screen.

‘Fujitsu Laboratories’ have invented a new technology to embed data in printed images. This procedure, commonly called steganography, meaning ‘hidden writing’, is used to watermark digital images as a way of identifying them and detecting piracy. Such watermarking usually damages the image quality. But ‘Fujitsu Laboratories’ claim to have perfected a way of preserving image quality while adding the data. Numeric characters of up to 12 digits, such as a telephone number or numeric conversion of a URL address can be embedded in a 1cm x 1cm section of an image.

It takes Fujitsu’s PDA 0.4 seconds to detect and decode the data, and Tsugio Noda, a research fellow in ‘Fujitsu Laboratories’, said an ordinary mobile device would take one second.

The original image and the data to be embedded are combined into one set of code, a TIFF or JPEG image for example, which is then printed as one picture. The way the combining is done is to divide the original image into smaller blocks of 0.8mm square or less. The average gradation or density level of each block is analysed and then the information is added as a sequence of yellow dots which have a lower gradation.

Human eyes cannot see this particularly way of treating yellow dots in such a small space. So the data is imperceptible to our eyes but can be seen by a digital camera with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) code that detects the yellow dots. Fujitsu reckons that the code can be added to mobile phones or PDAs with digital cameras. A demonstration of a similar process was shown at Intel’s Developer Forum in 2003 using an Intel mobile phone platform to detect an image’s digital watermark.

Such steganographic burying of data means that the image doesn’t need the information visibly printed on the page and taking up space. In Japan, one or two dimensional barcode technology is often used to contain telephone, URL and similar data. Such barcodes look ugly and could be dispensed with using the Fujitsu technology, the company claims. Consumers could even embed information in pictures printed on their inkjet printers.

Applications include automatic mobile phone dialling to, for example, get a ring tone download from a music CD’s cover image data. Information about a shop or restaurant could be collected while reading about them in a magazine for example a GPS location. Printed card-based games can also be envisaged.

The technology is open to abuse though. Secret data, such as passwords, could be embedded in an image and openly taken out of secured premises. Soft porn or porn images could have adult website URLs secretly added to them or, worse, premium rate telephone lines could be activated.

Fujitsu Labs may talk to mobile phone and PDA manufacturers about productising the technology.

Your phone can – in theory – read secret messages embedded in pictures – and at a technology forum next week [2006-02], Fujitsu’s research labs will be demonstrating steganography.

Normally, steganography is used by spies and copyright restriction junkies, and the idea is that a picture can be subtly altered to include binary code, without the human eye being able to see it.

Anybody can put a watermark into a photo; it ruins the picture. Sure, it shows that the picture is copyright! but it also makes the picture look awful. What steganography can do, is hide the watermark from humans, while making it glaringly obvious for a digital camera.

The breakthrough that Fujitsu reported 2005-07, was in being able to get this technology into a mobile phone.

The application? not copy protection, but extra product info. They are talking about “point your mobile phone camera at a product on the shelf, and it will read further information about it, and show you on screen” – list of ingredients, for example.

A technology that can “hide” information in plain sight on printed images has begun to see the first commercial applications.

Japanese firm Fujitsu is pushing a technology that can encode data into a picture that is invisible to the human eye but can be decoded by a mobile phone with a camera.

The company believes the technology will have spin off implications for the publishing industry.

“The concept is to be able to link the printed page into the digital domain,” said The General Manager for Sales Operations at Fujitsu Europe Mr.Mike Nelson.

The technique stems from a 2 500-year-old practice called steganography, which saw the Ancient Greeks sending warnings of attacks on wooden tablets and then covering them in wax and tattooing messages on shaved heads that were then covered by the regrowth of hair.

Fujitsu’s technique works by taking advantage of the sensitivities of the human eye, which struggles to see the colour yellow.

‘The key is to take the yellow hue in the picture and we skew that ever so slightly to create a pattern,” said Mr.Nelson.

‘A camera is perfectly sensitive to that yellow hue but the human eye doesn’t see it very well.

‘Any camera, even those in mobile phones, can decode it very easily.’

Pictures printed with the technique look perfectly normal but a camera can see the code printed into the image.

The technique can currently store just 12 bytes of information — soon to rise to 24 — the equivalent amount of data in a barcode.

That data could be a phone number, a message or a website link.

Printed materials can then connect to the online world by storing information which tells the phone to connect the web.

Almost any mobile phone can be used but a small java application must be downloaded before it can be used to decode the information. Other devices such as PDAs with a camera could also be used.

Once installed the same program can be used to read other codes on other products. It takes a few seconds for the phone to decipher the data.

And because most modern mobiles can connect to the net they act as a gateway to content that firms want to send to people who have decoded the steganographic pictures, such as music and video.

The first commercial use of the technology is in Japan where a Music Club has embedded codes into flyers it sends to subscribers.

‘Through that flyer they can link through the pictures to music clips,” said Mr.Nelson.

Any printer can be used to print the coded information inside a picture and Fujitsu is looking to license the technology to publishers.

There is also a small fee for the use of the decoding software which sits on the firm’s own servers.

Mr.Nelson believes the technology is more useful than barcodes because of its invisibility and because it connects printed matter to the internet, via the phone.

‘There’s a lot of printed material out there today whether it be food wrappers, billboards, catalogues, phone directories and business cards and they are not going to go away.

‘We need an added dimension to that flat material and linking that to the digital domain is what we are trying to do.’

Mr.Nelson does not believe steganography is competing with technologies such as RFID tags, tiny radio chips which can hold information and be scanned at a short distance.

‘You have to physically mount a chip into the device – it’s expensive and time consuming.

‘Steganography can be embedded as part of the normal printing process.’

Mr Nelson said he believed promotions and competition would drive take up of the technology as a prize would act as an incentive to use a mobile phone and download the decoding application.




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