Sounds are vibrations of the air that are picked up by vibrations of the eardrum. Those vibrations of the air can cause other objects to vibrate. Scientists at MIT have found a way to reconstruct what people have said from a video of the vibrations of a potato chip bag.
Imagine someone listening in to your private conversation by filming the bag of chips sitting on the other side of the room. Oddly specific, I know, but researchers at MIT did just that: They’ve created an algorithm that can reconstruct sound (and even intelligible speech) with the tiny vibrations it causes on video.
When sound hits an object, it makes distinct vibrations. “There’s this very subtle signal that’s telling you what the sound passing through is,” said Abe Davis, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and first author on the paper. But the movement is tiny – sometimes as small as thousandths of a pixel on video. It’s only when all of these signals are averaged, Davis said, that you can extract sound that makes sense. By observing the entire object, you can filter out the noise.This particular study grew out of an earlier experiment at MIT, led by Michael Rubinstein, now a postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft Research New England. In 2012, Rubinstein amplified tiny variations in video to detect things like the skin color change caused by the pumping of blood. Studying the vibrations caused by sound was a logical next step. But getting intelligible speech out of the analysis was surprising, Davis said.
The results are certainly impressive (and a little scary). In one example shown in a compilation video, a bag of chips is filmed from 15 feet away, through sound-proof glass. The reconstructed audio of someone reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in the same room as the chips isn’t crystal clear. But the words being said are possible to decipher.
In most cases, a high-speed camera is necessary to accomplish the feat. Still, at 2,000 to 6,000 frames per second, the camera used by the researchers is nothing compared to the best available on the market, which can surpass 100,000 frames per second. And the researchers found that even cheaper cameras could be used.