Tuesday 26 November 2013

Exclusive Interview with Dr. Alexandre Alahi Member of the Stanford Visio Lab and Founder of VisioSafe

Smarterview Exclusive Interview with Dr. Alexandre Alahi

The SmartView team is proud to release its first interview of Dr Alexandre Alahi expert in video analytics and member of the Stanford Visio Lab. Alexandre is also the founder of VisioSafe, the first hosted video protection service with avant-garde analytics. He has also written several research papers and articles. Some of them have been published in world famous newspapers such as the WallStreet Journal. Last but not least he won several awards in different contests such as the Swissnex Boston Global Pitchfest or the ICDS challenge prize. 
Hi Alexandre how are you doing? Thank you for your time and consideration. Let us start off right away. You are one of the founders of VisioSafe. Could you briefly describe what your startup is about?
The goal of our startup is to add another dimension to Google Analytics. Google Analytics is used to analyze the traffic of visitors on your website and what we want to do with VisioSafe, is to analyze visitors in the physical world. We want to fill the gap between the web and the real world. The success of online e businesses is thanks to analytics. They make you understand how people navigate on your website, in other words; what’s their path, how long they stay and what the impact might be of a given layout. We are applying the same tools for the physical world so a company can make the same analysis and optimizations.
Due to that we transform cameras in analytic tools and measure the traffic of people in any area. We use artificial intelligence to automatically detect and track them on the ground and analyze their trajectories in real time. The main advantage is that we re not embedding any devices on the visitors and its also privacy safe since we only capture their position and coordinates. We don’t track any info about their identities.
Who are your potential clients and how do they benefit from your technology?
Our clients are retailers and any brick and mortar companies, malls, exhibitions, airports etc. By the way, we call our cameras sensors as we use them for data collection. For retailers the benefit is pretty clear as why to use our technology. Understanding the purchasing path, the fishing rate, how many people come into your store and do not buy something, identifying hot spots in your store and how to optimize your layout. This data is most valuable for retailers and it is the same for malls and exhibitions. Which stores are generating the most traffic in order to optimize the placement of your products or stores depending on the traffic.
Airports have the same goal as train terminals have. They want to reduce the congestion time so you don’t miss the transit. They generally invest a lot of money in rebuilding their infrastructure. But for them to do so, they need prior quantitative analysis to justify the corrections. We are diagnosing the situation and also identifying how to improve it. Changing infrastructure in airports or train stations is really expensive so they have to do it right. However in retail stores the cost is much less.  Still the use of video analytics must be cleverly conducted. If it is, video analytics is the tool that can help to add value.
Can you show us an example where your company made a significant impact?
So this information is confidential. But to give a broad idea, some clients have doubled their revenues by only changing the layout thanks to the data collected. It is generally known that the way you present your products has a huge impact on the purchasing process and revenue. Some stores really make you feel uncomfortable. You enter and you want to leave again immediately. Others however manage keep customers in their stores, make you find the products you look for easily and maybe even make you buy things which you were not even specifically looking for. Hence optimizing the layout is definitely very important in terms of revenue. On top of that, the optimization of staff allocation is pretty important too. How much staff do you need when and where? Here you can surely save a lot of money. Moreover, analyzing queues and waiting times is critical for airports and train stations. Simple experiments, e.g. changing light conditions, can help to measure the impact on the flow of people.
The good thing is that our company offers a fairly new product and or service which people are not yet used to. So the clear value we are adding, pretty quickly convinces customers to follow up with repeated purchases.
What are the key management challenges when setting up/implementing your technology?
We are offering a cutting edge technology, which is a result of several years of research. It’s a new service thanks to the break troughs in artificial intelligence. People are actually still baffled and impressed when we demonstrate the capabilities of our product. Let me give you an example with regards to train stations. When we met with the train station officials for the first time, they tried to find other companies in the world who could do the same at the same scale. At that time we were the only ones. Again, our advantage is that we can locate as close as to a few centimeters. As opposed to a few meters when locating cell phones. And we are doing it large scale. We are able to track people over a minute or over one hundred meters. These are pretty nice features I would say, which others are not offering.
Let’s talk about personal data. Tesco is for example planning to scan faces of customers to target advertising in store. How and where do you draw the line between observation and infringing personal rights?
We all use GPS or elevators… Again, we are just offering a tool that helps potential customers to analyze the occupancy of their sites. And all that we do without identifying people. We don’t know whether it is a woman or a man, we don’t know their age… We only know about people and their trajectories. And we don’t want to know on purpose. We don’t want information about people’s identities. Of course when it comes to mobiles for instance you somehow get identities. And whether that’s good or bad is another debate. But our technology is not intrusive. Anyway, some of our customers have cameras installed anyways, for security reasons. And they are capturing images. We also offer products that help with that respect. But the analytic tool does not need images. It is the choice of the client whether or not to capture image data for security reasons. Some already have cameras installed and we are just helping them to transform their devices into an analytical tool.
Last but not least what do you think are the future trends regarding video analytics?
This is a topic, which we have been working on researching for he past 20 years. Every year the cost of the cameras decrease. Already two years ago there were 50 million security cameras around the globe.  All this follows the major topic of big data. The challenge is how to process it! Right? We have all the data. But we need artificial intelligence, a software or machine, which is able to understand and act. This pretty much describes my professional field and that’s what we are trying to do: Creating smart cameras. And there is definitely still room to make the cameras even smarter, to make them more human. We are still very far away from what a human brain can do, but at least we are trying to fill this gap. Cameras need to be able to cluster, recognize, understand and retrieve information from data. Because in the end it is only numbers, right? You want to obtain semantic information. You don’t want to receive an alert that someone is walking; you want to receive an alert about abnormal behavior.
Well thank you very much Alexandre. That was pretty insightful.
For all of you that want to stay updated what Alexandre and VisioSafe are up to in the future, be sure to check out these links:

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