Lecturer wins prestigious award for technological innovation

Pioneering work in the field of video analytics has led to Dr Sepideh Chakaveh, Course Director for the online Advanced Diploma in IT Systems Analysis and Design, winning the prestigious Everywoman Innovator Award 2020.

The award recognises Dr Chakaveh’s achievements in founding and leading Pixsellar, a start-up business creating groundbreaking video applications – including one that provides simultaneous translation of video chats. The company is the product of everything Dr Chakaveh has learnt in a long and successful career. ‘All my experience, all my knowledge has gone into Pixsellar,’ she says.

Video analytics is one of the most exciting new technologies to emerge in recent years. It entails analysing huge datasets of video footage to identify patterns and then using those to create algorithms that can be applied for a particular purpose. To take a simple example, by analysing lots of video of people’s facial expressions in different contexts, we can note the micro-expressions (such as raised eyebrows or slightly open mouth) that people make when they are surprised. From this information, it’s possible to create an algorithm that identifies when an individual is surprised (or angry, or unhappy) from their facial expression. That algorithm could be used as the basis of an app used in marketing, for example, or in job interviews.

Delivering the first internet connectivity to Eastern Europe

The skills and expertise required to set up Pixsellar have been acquired during an unusually varied and high-achieving career. After graduating in Electronic Engineering, Dr Chakaveh took a PhD in Experimental Astrophysics, working on the European Space Agency’s Giotto project to send a spacecraft to study Halley’s comet. She spent 10 years as an astrophysicist, both in the UK and Germany, before moving to research organisation Fraunhofer, where she headed up a project to deliver the first internet connectivity to five Eastern European countries. She later moved to the University of Southampton, where she co-founded the Southampton Data Science Academy.

Dr Chakaveh joined the Department as a tutor in 2010, and now spends three or four days a week in her current role as Course Director. In 2017, she stepped down from her Southampton post and founded Pixsellar, thinking: ‘If I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it.’

Instant translation

Pixsellar is at the cutting edge of video analytics technology. The first app to be released is PixselChat, which enables people to chat over video in different languages, and to see or hear a simultaneous translation. Imagine, she adds, that you are talking with her over Facetime: you speak in English while she speaks in Farsi. The conversation is instantly translated, so that Dr Chakaveh hears your words in Farsi and you hear her words in English. The technology can translate between 100 different languages in text form, and 70 as a synthesised voice. ‘It is the most sophisticated piece of engineering possible,’ she says.

Potentially, it has a vast range of uses – in business, in hospitals, or in criminal courts, for example. At a time when more and more of us are holding meetings over videoconferencing, PixselChat has the ability to transform people’s ability to communicate with colleagues of different nationalities, Dr Chakaveh points out. A test version of the app, which works over the 5G network, is already available on Android, with web and iOS versions due later this year.

Another technology under development is Falcon, which decodes people’s emotions based on their facial expressions. Most existing facial recognition apps are flawed, says Dr Chakaveh because the database of facial expressions is drawn from a narrow cultural background. Someone from, say, a South Asian background, might use a different facial expression to indicate a particular emotion than someone from a white British background. One of its potential uses is to benchmark facial expressions in dementia patients to make it easier to understand their feelings when they can no longer communicate as effectively.

Personalised advertising

Equally innovative is Pixsellar Player, a ‘remarkable technology’ that can personalise advertising in a live video stream. Suppose the audience in Saudi Arabia is watching a football match between England and Germany, where alcohol is advertised on the hoardings. Because alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia, the app enables the authorities to replace the alcohol advertisements with advertisements for something more culturally appropriate. The technology could be used to personalise advertisement in any video content, to the extent that an individual could see advertisements tailored to their own interests.

Despite her pioneering work in video analytics, Dr Chakaveh continues to enjoy teaching on the Advanced Diploma. Her teaching work has fed into her business because, she says, ‘it has exposed me to a lot of new ideas. It helps the development of my company because the more I learn about teaching new stuff, the more I can put back into the process of developing the technology.’

She has no doubt, however, that the work she is doing will be an integral part of the way humans will interact in future: ‘The human race has been living in the analogue world for the last 60,000 years. Now we are moving into this digital universe, so effectively for anything we do in the real world, there is an analogy or equivalent of it in the digital world.’ But, she adds: ‘It has to be hand created, it has to be hand coded – it doesn’t just happen by itself.’

To download PixselChat, contact Pixsellar through their website: www.pixsellar.com

Published 29 April 2020