Ex-Palm trio loads up on Vitamin D

Rob Haitani, Greg Shirai and Celeste Baranski are tapping AI to try to make sense of what's going on in digital videos. Their first target: the surveillance camera industry.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
3 min read

Vitamin D, a start-up formed by three ex-Palm executives, is releasing a public beta of software that consumers can use to detect human motion in their security cameras and create rules on what to do when someone is spotted coming or going. Vitamin D

The great thing about security cameras is the fact that they let you record things without needing to have a human being physically there.

The downside is that, in most cases, it takes a human being to figure out whether there is anything interesting there. Sure, there is motion-sensing technology, but such systems are often fooled by animals, cars, or even by a tree rustling in the wind.

Three former Palm executives think they have some software that could help shake things up. Their company, Vitamin D, is releasing a public beta on Monday of software that can detect and isolate human motion, potentially allowing the growing number of surveillance cameras out there to be a whole lot more useful.

The software, which works on either PCs or Macs, puts a yellow box around any human motion it detects and can be further refined to show only someone coming or going from a particular area--say entering or leaving through a particular door. The software is designed to work with any IP camera or even an inexpensive Web cam.

Getting in the surveillance game is admittedly a bit of a shift for early Palm employees Greg Shirai and Rob Haitani--two guys who have spent most of their careers creating consumer gadgets.

But, after years of listening to Palm and Handspring founder Jeff Hawkins talk about his brain research, Shirai and Haitani, along with Celeste Baranksi, another ex-Palm executive, thought they had a way to make a business out of it. "We were always fascinated by what Jeff was doing," Shirai said. Vitamin D's software is powered by artificial intelligence technology licensed from Hawkins' Numenta start-up.

Shirai and Haitani say they are starting with the security camera industry because that's the first application the technology can be used in. But over time, they hope to refine the technology such that it can have broader uses, such as powering object-based search within video streams.

Haitani gave a preview of the technology at this year's Demo conference. There's also a video of the technology in action on Vitamin D's Web site.

Using artificial intelligence makes the system remarkably adaptable, Haitani said, something that is not the case even with very high-end systems that use various rules to try to identify humans.

Vitamin D's software, for example, is able to pick out two people carrying a lawn mower, someone crawling, or even a person pushing a stroller--all shapes that don't look a lot like what an algorithm might think of as human.

"You can see how the shape-based rules quickly break down," Haitani said.

The technology isn't perfect. It isn't well suited to nighttime work, or anything where there isn't sufficient light. "We actually would not do well in poorly lit scenes," Shirai said.

Shirai and Haitani have been using the software at their homes and office to try it out. They haven't caught any thieves yet, though there was one scare, Shirai said.

He noticed a group of people struggling at the company's front door early one morning.

"I thought, oh my gosh, there are these people breaking into our office," Shirai said. In reality, he had found something far less sinister--what time his office's cleaning crew came each day.

Haitani said he also learned that his house is frequented by hummingbirds when he is not there. "Apparently my front lawn is this crossing path," he said.

For those who have security cameras, particularly consumers and small businesses, Vitamin D's software can offer significant time savings. Going through all the motions detected in hundreds of hours of video--even if one only spends 5 seconds on each clip--could require hours of work. By contrast, narrowing it down to just humans might cut that workload down to just minutes, as the two demonstrated last week, showing me examples from their collection of surveillance tapes.

The software will be free during the public beta, though the company hopes to start charging for a final version in the first half of next year.

Other potential customers could be law enforcement or even the intelligence community. Indeed, In-Q-Tel, the investment vehicle for the intelligence community, is among Vitamin D's early investors, along with HTC, the cell phone maker that Haitani and Shirai know well from their Palm days.