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Intelligent Machines

Movies That Fight Back

New technologies battle bootleggers’ camcorders

In a few years, if you’re in a theater watching some sci-fi robot thriller, a real-life battle of the machines might unfold quietly before you: gadgets at the front of the house may seek out the optical signatures of bootleggers’ camcorders, then fire narrow beams of light directly into the lenses, blinding the cameras and saving the day for Hollywood’s bottom line.

Here comes the stolen movie image, thwarted by antibootlegging technology. (Courtesy of Thomson)

With the Motion Picture Association of America estimating that piracy of newly released movies involves in-theater camcorders 90 percent of the time, a counter­offensive is taking shape. Technology proto­typed by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in June exploits the fact that all digital cameras use light-­catching sensors that also reflect light back. The Georgia Tech system shines a weak infrared beam–invisible to humans–into the audience and identifies cameras by the reflected infrared light. If the system spots a camcorder, it zaps it with a narrow beam of white light, producing large splotches on the recording. Gregory Abowd, the computer scientist who led development of the technology, has launched a startup company to commercialize it, DominINC.

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A different approach comes from the Content Security subsidiary of Paris-based Thomson, which opened a demo center in Burbank, CA, this year. Its technology damages illicit recordings by doctoring the movies themselves, digitally inserting extra frames containing things like flashes of light or the words “illegal copy,” says chief technology officer Jian Zhao.

The inserted frames are undetectable to people in the theater, but because of the difference between movie and video frame rates, they show up in the pirated copies. The doctored frames appear at random rates so bootleggers can’t beat the system.

Brad Hunt, chief technology officer for the Motion Picture Association, says the industry wants to make sure such technologies won’t distract moviegoers. But with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, the industry is eager for solutions in the next several years, he says.

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