One of the most important kinds of artificial intelligence may be machine vision, also known as computer vision — image processing technology that allows machines to “see” the world like people can.
This tech is already having a major impact on industry — especially the retail, warehousing and manufacturing sectors. Any business owner should know about how machine vision may help reshape the economy over the next few years.
What Is Machine Vision and How Does it Work?
At its simplest, machine vision is the use of visual information and artificial intelligence to create algorithms that can process images — breaking them down into identifiable objects, scanning for patterns and looking for important information.
Machine vision technology has existed for decades, but it was rarely used due to the limitations of image processing technology and the high cost of sensors.
Recently, artificial intelligence has made machine vision much more practical.
With an AI-based approach like machine learning, if you have enough visual information — like photographs and recorded video — you can train an algorithm that’s capable of breaking down what a camera sees and picking out distinct, identifiable objects that a machine or robot can use.
For example, a machine vision algorithm trained on information from grocery stores may be able to identify the different products visible in a picture or video feed, as well as objects like shelves, barcodes, displays, customers and floorspace.
One of the better-known applications of machine vision is in self-driving cars. These cars are outfitted with a number of sensors that scan the environment around them — including cameras. Footage from these cameras are processed by a machine learning algorithm.
This algorithm breaks down the visual data from the cameras into information that the self-driving system can use — like where the road is, the location of other drivers and obstacles the car will have to navigate around.
Fully self-driving cars haven’t hit the market yet — but smart driver assistance systems that use similar tech are starting to become common offerings in high-end vehicles.
The biggest beneficiaries of machine vision, however, are probably companies that can use the tech to streamline business processes.
How AI-Powered Image Processing Is Transforming Business
Across the economy, machine vision is being used in a few different ways.
In retail, machine vision often helps support “smart stores” that use networked sensors and AI to streamline customers’ shopping experience.
These smart stores include the cashierless stores being pioneered by Amazon right now. In these stores, cameras, combined with other sensors like shelf weight sensors and motion detectors, track customers as they move around the store and fill their cart.
Similar tech could also be used to make existing, non-smart stores more intelligent. For example, several companies are experimenting with the use of machine vision to create smart cashierless checkouts in stores that don’t adopt the grab-and-go model.
These could provide a more streamlined alternative to existing self-checkout systems without requiring the same investment that smart stores require.
In manufacturing, machine vision is often used for quality assurance purposes.
For example, you may see a manufacturer use machine vision on a conveyor belt robot that sorts out ideal products from those with obvious defects.
Another algorithm may be used just for color inspection of finished products. Manufacturers sometimes use color inspection for quality assurance processes, using color as a guide to look for chips in paints, defects or errors in components like color-coded wires.
With machine vision, the use of specific lights can help make this process even more effective. By using colored light, rather than pure white light, you can highlight certain colors and help the algorithm to track them.
Manufacturers also use machine vision to support new, self-piloting robots. In factories with warehouses, for example, some manufacturers are using autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) to partially automate picking and packing.
These robots use machine vision like self-driving cars to navigate the factory floor with little or no supervision. They can also use machine vision to read barcodes and identify individual objects, like pallets, allowing them to pick out items to transport around the factory.
How Your Business Can Benefit From Machine Vision
As machine vision becomes more popular, businesses across the economy will be able to benefit from new devices and platforms that use the tech.
A few cutting-edge applications of the tech are already widely available. These may help a number of businesses to automate processes that they couldn’t automate before, or to speed up tedious and difficult labor.
For example, there is a growing number of handwriting analysis and digitization tools on the market that use AI-powered optical character recognition (or OCR). These tools convert scans or photos of handwriting into digital text — reducing the need for transcription and making notes more accessible.
Retailers can benefit from machine vision-powered robots like those used by Walmart for inventory management. These robots move up and down aisles, using cameras to scan for products that need restocking.
Small businesses could also benefit from working with large manufacturers that have adopted the technology. Machine vision can help to reduce costs and improve product quality — for SMBs, this partnership could lower manufacturing expenses and the risk of defective products.
In some cases, it may also be possible to bring this technology in-house to improve quality assurance processes.
The Growing Importance of Machine Vision
AI is likely to become even more important to the business world over the next few years. Tech powered by artificial intelligence, like machine vision, will probably become more sophisticated at the same time.
Right now, businesses can use machine vision in a few different ways — like improving quality control or automating processes like inventory checks. Small businesses without the resources for complex AI-based solutions can also benefit from machine vision through tools like handwriting OCR apps.
Eleanor is editor of Designerly Magazine. Eleanor was the creative director and occasional blog writer at a prominent digital marketing agency before becoming her own boss in 2018. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and dog, Bear.