Sunday, September 02, 2018

Creative license in technology

One of my favorite bullshit TV conventions is when the cop/detective/investigator/president/terrorist/curious bystander asks the technician to enhance the screen. Somehow they can zoom in and get crystal clear images.  Zowie!  They can see mirror reflections, read fortune cookies sticking out of pockets, identify hair follicles. If only this technology actually existed.  Here is a fun montage Duncan Robson made of all these moments.  Hopefully, it will enhance your enjoyment of procedurals... and mirrors.

35 comments :

Wendy M. Grossman said...

My favorite was in a show called...something about Las Vegas, in which the investigator barked "enhance that image!" and the grainy image captured by a CCTV camera way, way, high up in the ceiling magically revealed the tiny, tiny incised letters on a pill in a person's hand down on the casino floor. AS IF.

wg

Janet Ybarra said...

They do this...and a whole lot more like it on NCIS all the time. A character (usually the computer "expert" McGee) types something in and suddenly, magically they start getting the information they need to solve their case.

And then there's this one episode where Gibbs knows *exactly* the code of the traffic camera across the street from the warehouse from where he is so the feed can be sent back to headquarters.

And yet the characters are constantly spouting off street names in the District of Columbia without quadrant designations. Such as 123 Adams St.

That's meaningless.In real life, no one gives an address without a quadrant designation. The city is divided into 4 quadrants: NW, NE, SW and SE.

All street addresses have one of those quadrants attached to them. And someone reading off an address without the quadrant the one getting the address would get hopelessly lost.

Oh, and I've said this so many times before: the DC region is NOT a "tri state area" as it so often referred to on NCIS because Washington DC is not a state. Which is a very very big deal to the half million people who live there.

Why?

They pay taxes but have no voting representatives in Congress. That is, as the DC license plates say, taxation without representation.

Peter said...

Such technology does exist but not to the average person in the street. In 1993, there was an horrific murder of a toddler here in Britain. There was grainy CCTV footage of the suspects. The police asked the intelligence agency MI5 to use their technology to sharpen the image. They did so and the image was shown on national television. The killers, two young boys, were quickly identified by members of the public who alerted police.

So yeah, it's always a hoot to see regular people in movies being able to do that.

Baylink said...

I hate to be That Guy (aw, who the hell am I kidding; I *love* being That Guy), but...

nowadays, this is actually possible.

Many newer generation security DVRs -- especially large-system models -- can show 720x480 or smaller on the montage/scrub screen... but are recording full resolution from 4k IP cameras. So once you've gotten to the right place, you can "zoom in", displaying the full 3840x2160 image, 5-6x larger in each dimension.

*I* loved the Matrix "pause and pan" thing, also based partially on CBS's EyeVision ultra-slowmo 33-camera DDR system for Football.

At the moment, I don't think any DVRs do that per-se, though you can do a fixed aim version of it if you want to spend the money.

Janet Ybarra said...

It's not just whether the technology exists, it's that on TV, the protagonists type a few a few keystrokes and the results are nearly instant.

Aaron Sheckley said...

Too many people don't seem to grasp that shows like CSI and NCIS (two of the big offenders of the "enhance that image!" trope) are basically science fiction. In and of itself that's not a problem, since most TV shows are on an entirely different plane of reality than the one we all live in. The problem comes from something we called "The CSI Effect". I spent a long career in law enforcement, and found that the exposure to the fantasy of shows like CSI could create real problems in court. If we showed a grainy CCTV image of a suspect at something like a robbery, some jurors would view it as incompetence on the part of the investigators because we failed to blow up that crappy image from an ancient videotape based CCTV system into an HD 4' by 6' crystal clear poster that showed the suspect's five o clock shadow. The same went for fingerprint evidence. I can count on one hand the number of cases over a long career that involved an actual identifiable latent print that was sufficient for prosecution, but exposure to years of TV has made jurors convinced that fingerprints are left all over every crime scene. Prior to my retirement, it reached a point where we had to bring in a forensic services technician to trials in order to testify that it wasn't like they saw on television; that you couldn't enhance an image from a grainy low resolution surveillance video taken from 50 feet away. And no, it's actually kind of uncommon to find a usable print at a scene. And no, there isn't a nationwide link of all CCTV systems so I can access the security system of a WalMart in Maryland from my office in Pennsylvania and see my suspect buying Huggies. And no, we don't find DNA at every single crime scene.

And not just stupid people believed the things they saw on CSI; I encountered plenty of otherwise intelligent people who had absorbed enough of the CSI/NCIS bullshit through osmosis that they believed that we could do all the stuff that Gibbs and Caine and their minions could, and that if we couldn't "enhance that image!", it was because of laziness and/or incompetence.

Mork said...

A few years ago, back when CSI: Original Recipe was at the top of the Neilsens, we had a bank robbery in our area. The news director at the TV station where I work called and said the detective working the case was on his way to the station with a copy of the video and asked me if I could help him with the video. We sat down, plugged in his thumb drive, and looked at the video. Grainy, low resolution black and white security camera footage from 30 feet away, just absolutely worthless. The sort of footage where you can determine with a high level of certainty that the subject was a human between two and eleven feet tall. Then the detective asked me if I could "enhance" the image. I tried a couple of tricks, but nothing worked (nor did I really expect it to).

So I got to explain to him how that's not really how it works, and I can't just magically manufacture pixels. Fortunately, he was understanding; we got to talking, and, go figure, he starts telling me about how the cops deal with exactly the same thing. People assume that, because they saw it on TV, every police station has a giant touch screen with beeping graphics, and there's a computer that they have and all you have to do is tell it "blue car with a license plate ending in 4 driven by a man", and within five seconds, it spits out the criminal's mug shot, complete rap sheet, up to the second current location and a list of everyone connected with the crime. Oh, and the detectives all drive luxury Hummers or sports cars. We both had some good laughs over the whole thing.

Keith Nichols said...

It appears that the enhancement the cops apply to video images means inventing or interpolating new pixels of imagery between points actually in the raw video. The invented points are based on the characteristics of the info in the known points. It's the sort of thing computers are uniquely good at, and the formulas for doing it in each case depend on how clever the programmer is at telling the computer what to do with raw data. It's in the family of schemes by which your stock broker predicts the growth or decline of your portfolio. I'm not sure the courts consider such enhanced images as reliable as DNA in identifying people. We may scoff at it in TV shows because of the offhand way the results are so quickly created and displayed, but the technology is real.

Matt said...

My favorite one was from the Tom Clancy movie Patriot Games where the identified the female Irish terrorist by her cleavage size using satellite images.

Peter Aparicio said...

People of the STATES are represented in Congress. As DC is NOT a state, they are not entitled to voting Reps/Senators. There is a Constitutional remedy for that, but until then the entire Congress takes care of DC affairs

Barry in Portland said...

On the theme of writers' imaginations being mistaken for Reality:

Once, at a Star Trek conference, Gene Roddenberry was asked by an 'enthusiast', 'how does the Transporter actually work?'.

His reply: 'Actually, it works GREAT!'.

William J. Beaumont said...

These are great! It reminds me of my very favorite example of technobabble on CSI: "GUI interface using visual basic to track the IP address": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkDD03yeLnU

That's like saying "I'm going to create a laminated menu in Latin to see if I can track down a good farmers market". Classic.

VP81955 said...

This former metro Washington resident agrees with your comment on the "tri-state area"...although as the D.C. exurbs continue to grow, the eastern panhandle of West Virginia -- from which an increasing number of people take commuter rail to Gaithersburg, Rockville and Silver Spring, Md., not to mention Union Station near the Capitol -- may make it a tri-state area after all (excluding the District). Maybe the writers got it from David Letterman's ironic wisecracks about the New York City "tri-state area," comments he designed to parody a small-market anchorman.

And on the quadrants: Since the bulk of the city's commercial hub and upscale neighborhoods are in NW, easily the largest of the four, it's become the de facto reference among locals. (SW is by far the smallest, and beyond Capitol Hill, NE and SE are largely residential, predominantly black and Latino, though SE is home to Nationals Park while SW hosts Audi Field, D.C. United's new MLS stadium.) If you hear a reference on NCIS to "1019 L Street SW," rest assured that address doesn't exist; it's as fictional as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo's NYC address, which actually is somewhere in the East River.

Aaron Sheckley said...

@Keith Nichols,

I don't dispute that some of technology shown on CSI/NCIS is real, in the sense that some programmer can create a program that interpolates data from a digital photo to "fill in the gaps"; it's the application of the technology to the required legal standards that's a total fantasy, and that fantasy can actually interfere with the prosecution of a case. A good bit of current technology would not pass the standards for forensic evidence, at least in my home state, and could never used at any level, any more than we could put a psychic on the stand to testify about their visions. Well into the 1990's, the courts wouldn't accept digital photos in lieu of film for crime scenes, and original wiretap recordings had to be on tape and not digital. Even fingerprint evidence has been called into question at the federal level, because it has never been subjected to the type of scientific scrutiny that say, DNA has been. There is no scientifically obtained data that two people can't share a fingerprint; it's just an assumption that's been made for a hundred years (up until recently). Any evidence that's derived from interpolated data is going to be immediately suspect from a legal standpoint, regardless of how clever the programmer or his algorithms are, and that's how it should be. Disregarding the fact that none of this tech is readily available in-house to a police department the way it's portrayed on CSI/NCIS, an image is still being altered from it's original form by adding data that was not there in the original, which immediately makes it suspect from an evidentiary standpoint for use in court. Digital evidence is becoming less and less reliable as the technology increases, not more reliable, because it's becoming more and more easy to create a digital image that may be indistinguishable from reality. In light of new things like facial substitution software, the courts may soon have to contend with the fact that digitally recorded evidence is totally unreliable, because of its ease of manipulation, unless the digital evidence was created under some very strict conditions.

Janet Ybarra said...

Oh yeah, NCIS also is guity of all kinds of computer technobabble in service of McGee and Abby's "hacking" or counter-hacking: "Break that level 8 encryption with a logic bomb right away, McGee!"

Donald Benson said...

Back in 77 Mel Brooks mocked the idea in HIGH ANXIETY. He had the shutterbug chauffeur enlarging a snapshot to a wall-sized print to find a tiny, perfectly focused face.

Buttermilk Sky said...

It's not just the Ricardos who lived in the East River. As an old New York hand, I'm always amused by those L&O addresses that put people underwater (e.g., 750 West 33rd Street, which would be a short swim from Hoboken).

I also want one of those 555 telephone numbers available only to folks in teevee and movies.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

...and how about the outer space adventures that include explosions? Uh, there's no air in space...so no molecules to bump into one another...hence, no sound. -sigh-

Boom!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Peter: I'm wondering about the details of that story. If there's an agency with that capability wouldn't it be GCHQ rather than MI5? (Several accounts I just looked up say "slightly enhanced" images were broadcast that enabled a woman to identify the killers, but it doesn't sound like it was the kind of massive leap in resolution you see on TV.)

My favorite bullshit technology moment was in the first episode of 24, when Sutherland barks at his underlings, "Get me all the Internet passwords associated with that number!" He was trying to get into his daughter's AOL account. That was the end of my watching 24...

wg

Liggie said...

Of course, I have no issues with this technology being used in the CW superhero shows like "Arrow". Fits the exaggerated tone of the series.

Janet Ybarra said...

The other problem with 24 was all the easy torture. Apparently, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld and their crowd were fans, bought into the "effectiveness" of the on-screen torture and voila...we got all those "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Dubliner said...

There was a great reference to this in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, when they were watching a VHS store video of an incident:

Cordelia: Wait, zoom in.
Xander: It's not like on television Cordelia, you can't just zoom in.

Later

Cordelia: Wait, rewind.
Xander: I told you, you can't just-- Oh, okay (he rewinds)

Tom said...

All those scenes say to me is: by the way, this isn't real. It's just the product of some old hacks, and their contempt for you.

Janet Ybarra said...

Actually, Ken, this reference to BUFFY got me thinking, and I was wondering if you could comment.

It relates, I suppose, to the intersection of #metoo and a given TV series or multiple series worth of content.

Specifically, Joss Whedon (the producer of BUFFY and many other series and films) was "outed" as basically a serial philanderer and cad in an essay published last year by his ex-wife.

It caused enough tremors among his fanbase that those who had maintained a major fan website for more than 15 years abruptly shut it down as a result.

Basically my question is should viewers consider a producer's/showrunner's personal behavior or should the work stand for itself?

Anonymous said...

Dana Elcar- seen in the clips from MacGyver -
began to develop glaucoma during the run of the series.

Peter said...

Wendy

I too tried to find online accounts to confirm my memory and couldn't find any reference to MI5. But I've found the Crimewatch programme that showed the image and it was actually the Ministry of Defence that sharpened the picture.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=omTHaoCda5M

Peter said...

One of my favourite Roger Ebert observations about movie cliches was on successful computer searches or password access always resulting in a beep. He said the only time computers beep in real life is when something goes wrong.

Coram_Loci said...

A couple of episodes of Forensic Files include NASA enhancing surveillance video. The results weren't spectacular but sufficient. If I recall correctly, one episode enhanced supermarket/shopping mall parking lot video. The criminal's hands and arms were clarified enough to show him threatening a woman and then carjacking her.

Star Trek was mentioned earlier. Years ago I read how the writers of Star Trek TNG would often navigate their way through technology and get back on course by using the filler, "Geordi explains how" or something similar.

Frequently when I am confronted by the need for pesky details about I wave my hand and say, "LaForge can explain it."

Frederick Herman "Freddie" Jones said...

Ken:

I read your post with great interest.

About seven years ago, Kassem G had a really funny and slightly adult take on the subject.

Here is the link and you should check it out:

https://youtu.be/gF_qQYrCcns

Pseudonym said...

As most mathematicians and signal processing engineers know, the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem essentially states that the Magic Enhance Button doesn't exist. If it did, you wouldn't need to transmit anything in high def, you could just "enhance" at the receiver.

If you need detail, you need more data. But what's interesting is that the data needn't come from the space dimensions, but can come from the time dimension. Having multiple frames can denoise a single frame. That's how you can recover detail from CCTV, for example.

Kurt Lannegan, Esq. said...

If you knew anything at all about technology, you would know this technology actually does exist.

VincentS said...

Not to nitpick - okay, TO nitpick - but the STAR TREK clips might be out of place since by the 24th century we might have such technology.

Andy Rose said...

At least these are cases of deliberate dramatic license. I used to work in a recording studio that made radio commercials, and a company executive (who had no practical experience in the business at all) came down to show some guests around. Presumably because our department had cool dials and blinking lights and whatnot. Anyway, he gestured over to our rack of equalizers and pre-amps and compressors, and said to my boss (100% seriously), "So Neil, can you show our visitors how this expensive equipment can make you sound like you have a British accent?"

Mark P. said...

The example of enhanced video that sticks in my mind is from the House episode "Black Hole", where they had a machine that can show video of a patient's dreams. I guess the medical consultant was on vacation that week.

David G. Whitham said...

And no one mentioned Greg Brady enlarging his negative to clearly show that his teams wide receiver was in bounds...