Spying is getting easier all the time. Soon, it won’t even be necessary to plant ‘bugs’ in people’s rooms to listen in on their conversations. All you’ll need is a video camera –even if the video is shot through a soundproof glass door.

A team of researchers from MIT, Microsoft and Adobe, led by MIT grad student Abe Davis, has developed an algorithm that enables them to recover conversations by analyzing the minute vibrations caused by sound waves as they bounce off each object in the video – as captured by a high-speed camera capable of shooting up to 6,000 frames per second (fps). Thus, an indoor plant, a glass of water, or a bag of chips can all serve as visual microphones. Sounds are reconstructed based on the changes in color that occur on the edges of pixels.

The researchers are also exploring how to recover audio data from consumer cameras, which shoot at the rate of 60 fps. Because smartphones record videos line-by-line rather than frame-by-frame, the resultant distortions infer motion that the team’s algorithm can ‘translate’ into words. Beyond the obvious application to surveillance, Davis believes this technology will make it possible to analyze the acoustics of a concert hall as well as the constituent elements within an object.

It’s a good thing that people have grown accustomed to publicly airing their ‘dirty laundry’ and sharing their most intimate secrets on talk shows, tattler mags, and tell-all books and blogs for a while now; because soon, even your bedroom plant could expose your errant ways.

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