Can Sony bring Edge AI and software subscription together to advance biometric ID?

Can Sony bring Edge AI and software subscription together to advance biometric ID?

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an urgent need in the biometrics market for identification systems that can support evolving requirements for temperature scanning and face mask usage. There is a company that could apply the software-as-a-service model to biometric technologies in order to offer those new capabilities to customers. That company’s name? Sony Corp.

Sony, the global electronics giant, is known for its TVs and PlayStation gaming consoles, but also sold almost $10 billion worth of imaging and sensing products in 2019. By designing chips that sit at the intersection of hardware and software, the company hopes to make that business more resilient with recurring revenue streams. How? Ultimately, company executives hope to offer customers a way to “subscribe” to data analysis and other features and services.

Two CMOS image sensors developed by Sony Corp. will ship with machine learning capabilities baked on to the sensors themselves. Along with the product announcement, Sony partnered with Microsoft Corp. to embed Azure AI capabilities in its new chips.

Sony said its sensors are the world’s first AI-equipped image sensors and is pitching them initially for the retail and industrial equipment sectors. It is manufactured in a stacked configuration consisting of a pixel chip and a logic chip. The image sensor sends data to the logic chip, which has built-in AI processing capabilities, bypassing a need to send data to an external high-performance processor or memory. This approach is said to result in improvements in performance and power consumption over traditional designs.

An example of the new capabilities: the ability to quickly detect the presence of face masks on workers in addition to identifying them with biometric facial recognition for secure entry to a workplace, for instance. Performing these tasks on chip – what is referred to as the “device edge”- can aid in efforts to protect personal information while identifying a subject more quickly because data did not need to be transmitted back to a central server or cloud computing system.

The new sensors are the latest examples of adding capabilities to edge devices that normally would be done by a server or cloud. More than 80 percent of global chipsets will be AI-equipped and the market in the United States alone will be worth $12 billion by 2024, according to forecasts.

intelligent vision sensor stacked configuration (Source: Sony Corp.)

To help garner a larger slice of the market, making it easier for developers to customize chips with AI models suited to a given task will be important. Sony will develop an application that works with Microsoft’s Azure IoT and Cognitive Services offerings that will enable independent software vendors (ISVs) specializing in computer vision and video analytics solutions, as well as smart camera original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to quickly bring new smart video surveillance offerings to market. The idea is to enable model development and make training easier by offering the chips with Microsoft’s software already integrated.

The sensors themselves are capable of real-time object tracking, and AI models can be changed by rewriting internal memory, according to Sony. In fact, Sony says an AI model for detecting heat maps on a sensor can be scrubbed for one assigned an entirely different task.

The sensors can distinguish between inputs and push along only metadata to the cloud or data centers. Beyond addressing privacy concerns and latency, the architecture conserves power by not shipping everything that hits the chip.

Engineering and other services appear to be part of the subscription services that Sony envisions.

“Maybe what we can do is you buy a camera system for a multiyear contract of services, and we make sure to upgrade the camera’s sensor to the latest every three years,” said Hideki Somemiya, an executive with Sony Semiconductor Solutions, in an interview with Bloomberg. “It’s not an easy thing to do, but that’s why it’s a value that we would be able to provide.”

With files from Jim Nash.

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