Baby Monitor of the Future? MIT Scientists Create Program That Makes a Person's Heartbeat Visible

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By dramatizing subtle changes, new software makes it possible to see motions that are normally imperceptible to us.

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Four frames taken from a video, before and after processing (MIT)

For many new parents, the urge to check on a sleeping baby can be maddening. Is the baby still breathing? Unless the baby is a noisy sleeper, a traditional baby monitor won't tell you much, and constantly going into the little one's room isn't a great option either.

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New video software from scientists at MIT may give parents what they want: Images of their sleeping child, with its chest positively oceanic in its heaving, the ebb and flow of oxygen into the human body so dramatic you could spot it at a distance.

Of course no baby's breathing is quite so visible. The MIT software dramatizes changes in a video's pixels, so as to exaggerate any motions it detects. In an excellent video from The New York Times, the project's scientists explain how it all works, demonstrate a few of the other types of motions the software can enhance (not just a baby's breathing), and discuss some of the possible applications.

While the diagnostic potential may be what's tantalizing to doctors, the Times' Erik Olsen reports that, following a round of publicity last summer, "the team was inundated with e-mails inquiring about the availability of the program for uses ranging from health care to lie detection in law enforcement."

Also interested? Gamblers. "People wanted to be able to analyze their opponent during a poker game or blackjack and be able to know whether they're cheating or not, just by the variation in their heart rate," graduate student Michael Rubinstein told the Times.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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