March 31st, 2014

Sci + Tech | January 31st, 2011
Chatroulette: dick-tating content
McGill researchers develop “dick detection” software
Written by | Visual by Ludivine Baugier

Even when you are not looking for it, inappropriate online nakedness can smack you in the face. Especially if you frequent any of the internet’s many anonymous video chat sites, such as Chatroulette or Random Dorms, that have become popular in the past year. The anonymity of Chatroulette encourages lowered inhibitions – you will probably never see the person you end up chatting with again – but this also results in certain users, predominantly men, abusing the site and inappropriately displaying themselves to the world.

Despite the convenient option on Chatroulette to “next” someone, repeatedly seeing various strangers’ genitals is not the cup of tea of many users, nor is it the purpose of the website, which is open to all ages. This is where new work by Computer Science researchers at McGill and the University of Colorado at Boulder comes into play.

These researchers have come up with software that is able to detect inappropriate skin exposure on video camera images.

“The software uses an array of image detection algorithms to detect various characteristics, such as the presence of face, skin, eyes, etc,” explained Richard Han, professor of Computer Science at the University of Colorado, in an email to The Daily. “We then fuse these individual algorithms to make a stronger collective inference about whether the person in the picture is misbehaving.”

The researchers hope that this new combination of image detection algorithms, known as the Dempster-Shafer theory, will go a long way in being able to detect and prevent inappropriate exposure via video.

“In the past ten years commercial software [has been] developed that detects nudity online,”  said Xue Liu, a professor from McGill’s Computer Science department. “However, because of this new videochatting environment and the use of web cams, past research does not work very well [because] it [was designed] to detect nudity in high resolution still pictures.”

As a result, sites such as Chatroulette have had to deal with the major issue of users inappropriately exposing themselves to the camera. The website has employees who watch for users who are continuously “nexted,” and then investigate them to see if they are exposing themselves, but this is a cumbersome and expensive process.

The newly developed software is a much cheaper and faster alternative, and according to the researchers, the software has been successful.

“We have seen a substantial rise in the proportion of female users on Chatroulette now that we’ve helped clean up the system,” Han stated. “We hope to extend this software to help clean up other online video chat systems.”

The new software goes a long way in making Chatroulette a safe space for everyone, particularly minors.

“At any given time, there may be up to 10,000 minors on Chatroulette, especially on the weekends,” Han explained.  “Our research helps to protect those minors from being exposed to flashers.”

Of course the software is not perfect; sometimes it detects someone who is not a “flasher,” Liu says, and sometimes it misses someone who is. Chatroulette accommodates for this shortcoming by continuing to employ people who physically check out the site’s users for any suspect behaviour. Known as “the crowd,” these employees are essential for guaranteeing the accuracy of the software.

“By outsourcing to the crowd – the people who [Chatroulette employs to] watch images – we are able to increase the accuracy of the software,” Liu explained. He also noted that the research team is considering introducing a new algorithm that would detect specific behavioural traits into the software as a way to improve accuracy.

With the success the software has had for Chatroulette, Han is hopeful that it will change the atmosphere of such video chat sites in the long term.

“Our hope is that our software will make it possible for online video chat systems to achieve their full potential. Many users who were previously dissuaded from using such systems will be able to come back to a safer cleaner environment,” stated Han.

While the question remains as to whether anonymous video chatting with strangers is appealing, especially with the visitors – regardless of indecent exposure – that Chatroulette attracts, at least users will be less likely to stumble across a stranger’s dick as they click from one conversation to another.

27 May
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