Improved imaging software eases analysis tasks

Keeping pace with faster processors, image-analysis and machine-vision software packages are bringing sophisticated development and run-time functionality to a myriad of applications ranging from logo inspection to DNA analysis. Software vendors are targeting three main goals: simplify application development, speed real-time production-line imaging operations, and imbue hardware with image understanding techniques.

Nov 1st, 1997

Keeping pace with faster processors, image-analysis and machine-vision software packages are bringing sophisticated development and run-time functionality to a myriad of applications ranging from logo inspection to DNA analysis. Software vendors are targeting three main goals: simplify application development, speed real-time production-line imaging operations, and imbue hardware with image understanding techniques.

Software packages available today range from software drivers from frame-grabber vendors such as Data Translation (Marlboro, MA) to object-oriented graphical user interfaces (GUIs) such as VisionBlox from Integral Vision (Farmington, MI). This software supports a range of hardware, from Windows PCs to dedicated image-processing hardware. Because of this, choosing such image-processing software is very application-dependent.

MMX technology

Targeting the gamut of imaging configurations, the Inspector software from Matrox (Dorval, Quebec, Canada) runs under Windows 95/NT and can interactively apply imaging algorithms to scientific image-analysis and industrial machine-vision tasks (see Fig. 1). In addition to running under Windows, Inspector runs on Matrox's proprietary Genesis image processor, a C80-based family of imaging boards.

Inspector Version 2.2 is optimized for Intel's (Santa Clara, CA) MMX technology and speeds imaging computations that demand time-consuming, repetitive processing of pixel data. Although computations, such as the DCT and FFT were the domain of DSPs such as the C80, Intel is aiming to optimize such operations in its CISC/SIMD device. Combining MMX hardware and software such as Inspector can bring interactive image-analysis capabilities to low-cost PCs. For cost-sensitive dedicated machine-vision applications, Inspector on the desktop can serve as a prototyping springboard to an optimized solution combining dedicated imaging hardware with image-processing functions from the Matrox Image Library.

Also aiming to capitalize on MMX technology is MVTools from Imaging Technology (Bedford, MA), a library of machine-vision functions that includes point and area processing, convolution, morphology, edge finding and measurement, and point-to-point distance measurements. High-level tools in the package permit pattern finding and matching, barcode reading, circular regions of interest, and optical character verification.

While MVTools makes use of MMX processing to speed operations such as thresholding, the package complements Imaging Technology's other software products, sharing, for instance, some fundamental image-arithmetic and convolution operations with the company's Image Processing Library (IPL). Although MVTools leans toward industrial machine-vision applications with its barcode capabilities, IPL provides transform functions more attuned to scientific image analysis. Imaging Technology's products span a hierarchy ranging from its Sherlock32 machine-vision package (see Fig. 2 top) to its Camera Configurator utility (see Fig. 2 bottom) that automatically generates interface parameters for a particular camera/hardware combination.

In January 1996, Media Cybernetics (Silver Spring, MD) began shipping Image-Pro Plus 3.0 for Windows3.1/ 95/NT. Image-Pro Plus is an image-analysis software that enables developers to control and automate image-generating laboratory devices. It includes counting, sizing, statistical, and image-enhancement tools and built-in frame-grabber drivers that support boards from manufacturers including Active Imaging, Data Translation, Imaging Technology, Integral Vision, and Matrox. Version 3.0 of the image-analysis program provides Internet support for e-mail transmission of image data from within an Image-Pro application. The version also allows custom, formatted reports containing images and text to be created and exported to spreadsheet programs.

Image analysis

In contrast to the evolutionary Inspector-to-MIL approach of Matrox and the overlapping functionality of MVTools and IPL, Optimas (Bothell, WA) takes a two-pronged approach to image analysis and machine vision. The firm's Optimas 6.1 package supports industrial R&D, off-line quality-control inspection, laboratory automation, biological research, and biotechnology development (see Fig. 3). In addition to offering image-processing and measurement capabilities, it provides scripting capability, definition of complex regions of interest, compatibility with Microsoft Visual Basic, and the ability to output data to other applications, such as Microsoft Excel.

For machine-vision applications, Optimas offers XCaliper 4, an object-oriented software tool that includes 32-bit OCX components and runs under Windows NT. Xcaliper targets high-speed production applications such as logo checking, tachometer calibration, and optical character recognition, such as check routing and account number decoding .

Also designed around the OCX concept is the Aphelion software from Amerinex (Amherst, MA), which allows OEMs to implement custom applications or systems using selected Aphelion operators and GUI elements.

Proprietary hardware

Aphelion is aimed at a variety of hardware configurations, as are products such as the WiT visual programming software from Logical Vision (Burnaby, BC, Canada). Logical Vision offers its Professional Toolkit to enable OEMs to bundle WiT-developed algorithms with their own GUI. One firm that has customized WiT for its own hardware is Datacube (Danvers, MA). DatacubeWit provides a GUI for simplifying machine-vision and inspection, medical imaging, surveillance, and scientific research applications. DatacubeWit allows developers to build prototypes of their applications, and it can generate application code for the company's MaxPCI or MaxVideo 250 platforms.

To optimize applications such as semiconductor fabrication, Cognex (Needham, MA) is offering a proprietary hardware/software combination to increase semiconductor wafer yields by aligning them before probing, metrology, inspection, and bonding. The company's PatMax software is expected to ship on the Cognex 8000, a PCI-based machine-vision board. PatMax combines Intel's MMX instruction set with proprietary, patented algorithms and technology that the company claims provide performance improvements over the public domain object-location algorithms (such as normalized correlation) employed in other software packages.

Despite the availability of third-party software tools, hardware vendors are expected to continue offering software packages that provide their customers with one-stop shopping. Coreco (St. Laurent, Quebec, Canada), for example, supports Visilog5 from Noesis (St. Laurent, Quebec, Canada) and offers its own DimensionPro software for developers of on and off-line gauging applications using Coreco's Ultra II frame grabbers (see Fig. 4).

UNIX and NT, too

In addition to running on Windows '95 and NT-based systems, some vendors are targeting UNIX and UNIX-like operating systems. Visilog5 from Noesis, for example, is a native 32-bit image-processing and analysis software package running under Windows '95/NT and UNIX workstations from Sun, Hewlett-Packard, Silicon Graphics, and IBM. Visilog supports frame grabbers from Coreco, Imaging Technology, and Matrox. In September, Noesis released a driver for Coreco's TCI SE and Ultra II frame grabbers. Visilog5 includes a macro recorder and tools for generating statistical analyses and reports. Extension modules support fiber analysis, materials analysis, x-y-z stage control, and advanced morphology.

For Hewlett-Packard's HPUX OS, PixelSoft (Los Altos, CA) has announced the availability of its ISO standard Programmer's Imaging Kernel System (PIKS) Foundation Profile Application Program Interface software. Unlike WiT and Visilog, PIKS does not provide a one icon implementation of high-level imaging functions such as leveling and thresholding, but it does free developers from programming details such as memory management and data-structure generation. It defines more than 120 imaging APIs that could ultimately enhance application portability between third-party software vendors and multiple hardware vendors.

Getting smarter

To simplify application development and simultaneously allow PC-based vision systems to learn is the aim of the latest version of NeuroCheck 4.0. Developed by DS GmbH (Remseck, Germany) and distributed exclusively by Data Translation, the 32-bit integrated machine vision software is designed to operate with all of Data Translation's Mach Series of frame grabbers.

With a revised program structure, NeuroCheck features DLL plug-in capability, allowing developers to add their own image-processing and/or communication functions. And, like many modern graphically based image-processing packages, the software's user interface has been redesigned to enable developers to edit images on the fly and tailor applications with a configurable execution screen. Version 4.0 also includes template matching for better image segmentation and shape matching for precise determination and orientation of parts. Better still, developers can download a version of the package from to perform feasibility studies. Unlike many other machine vision packages, the software is also supplied with sample applications and code.

Using development tools such as VisualBasic, software vendors are now providing their customers with sophisticated image processing packages that can be rapidly deployed in machine vision applications. While low-level drivers and C-callable routines will certainly still exist, increases in host CPU speeds will lead developers to search out those development packages that can be most rapidly deployed. In the future, the most graphical and easy to use will lead the market.

FIGURE 1. System integrators can use the Matrox Inspector to test and validate application ideas quickly within the familiar Microsoft Windows 95/NT environment. Subsequently, the Matrox Imaging Library can be used to code the imaging part of the application.

FIGURE 2. The Prophecy 600 Windows-based gray-scale machine-vision system from Imaging Technology employs the company's Sherlock32 software to simplify the development of applications that can evaluate 1800 parts per minute at accuracies to 0.0001 in. (top). The Camera Configurator package is an interactive utility that simplifies the interfacing of a standard or nonstandard camera to imaging hardware (bottom).

FIGURE 3. Providing interactive image-analysis capability, the Optimas 6.1 software (top left) permits the export of image-analysis results to spreadsheets or other applications. The XCaliper 4 package provides real-time testing of aspects like logo integrity (top right), tachometer accuracy (left bottom), and high-speed optical-character recognition support (right bottom).

FIGURE 4. Designed for on- and off-line gauging applications, Coreco's DimensionPro interfaces with the company's Ultra-II PCI frame grabbers. It supports the measurements of distance, angle, area, and radius of curvature.

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