Smartphone Videos Can Now Be Analyzed and Used to Pinpoint the Location of a Shooter

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a system that can accurately locate a shooter based on video recordings from as few as three smartphones.
Gif: Carnegie Mellon University

Complex arrays of microphones are often used by law enforcement and the military to help quickly pinpoint where the sound of gunfire originates. But researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have found that videos captured by smartphones can be just as useful for determining the location of a shooter.

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The Video Event Reconstruction and Analysis system—or VERA, for short—was developed at CMU’s Language Technologies Institute with the cooperation of SITU Research who shared its expertise on ballistics and architecture, and the tool was released last month as free-to-use open-source code at the Association for Computing Machinery’s International Conference on Multimedia in Nice, France.

Using machine learning, VERA first synchronizes footage from multiple videos shot on smartphones in and around an event where a shooting occurs. The more footage collected the more accurate the results will be, but the researchers found the system even performed well when using footage from just three devices. Once synchronized, VERA calculates the position of where each video was filmed based on landmarks and other notable features in the actual footage.

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The system then processes the audio from each clip, specifically identifying two distinct sounds: the crack of the shock wave created by the supersonic bullet in flight, and the sound of the blast emanating from the weapon’s muzzle. The time delay between the two parameters provides a crucial clue, but the sounds also help reveal the type of gun used, which in turn helps determine the speed of the bullet. By processing all of that information, VERA is then able to determine the location of the shooter with a surprising level of accuracy.

A system developed by Carnegie Mellon University uses video from smartphones to help pinpoint the location of shooters. Here, analysis of video from two smartphones during the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas indicates the shooter was in the north wing of the Mandalay Bay hotel.
Illustration: Carnegie Mellon University
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During its development, VERA was tested using video captured by three smartphones during the first minute of the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada, which included multiple shots fired. The system was able to accurately estimate that the shooter was located in the north wing of the Mandalay Bay hotel, even with a margin of error that still pointed to the hotel as being the probable location.

Unlike microphone arrays which are constantly processing and analyzing signals to locate a shooter with minimal delays, the results from VERA aren’t immediate, so its use, at least in its current form, will be limited to forensic analysis of incidents after the fact. But with mass protests happening in places like Hong Kong, VERA could be a vital tool for determining if protestors or local police are responsible for shootings. Its creators also believe that VERA could be easily adapted to analyze and locate the origin of other sounds connected to human rights violations or war crimes investigations.

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