This algorithm removes water from undersea images.
Image: YouTube | Scientific American

Whenever scientists take photos under the sea, they are chromatically altered by the water’s blue appearance. As such, this makes it difficult to visualize the true colors of formations like coral reefs. Now, an oceanographer and engineer has developed an algorithm that “removes the water” from underwater pictures.

This leaves behind images with accurate colors and all of the vibrance of photos taken on land. It’s important to note that the software doesn’t just edit the contrast and colors of an image like Photoshop. Rather, it actually removes the color alterations and scattering caused by the movement of light through water.

Aptly known as Sea-thru, the algorithm could help revolutionize the way we study underwater phenomena.

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A Better Way

Derya Akkaynak developed Sea-thru as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Haifa. With a background in both oceanography and engineering, she was able to combine her two passions into one revolutionary piece of software.

Her algorithm has a drastic effect on photos taken underwater. As demonstrated by the image from Scientific American below, the difference between a photo before and after it runs through the software is startling.

Image: Scientific American

Akkaynak created the algorithm by capturing over 1,100 undersea images of different coral reefs and sea life. The photos helped train a model that learned to remove the effect of scattered light automatically.

She explained the process in an interview with Scientific American, saying, “Every time I see a reef with large 3D structures, I place my color chart at the base of the reef, and I swim away about 15 meters. I start swimming towards the reef, towards the color chart, and photograph it from slightly different angles until I get to the reef.”

World of Pos-sea-bilities

The technical details behind the Sea-thru algorithm are documented in a research paper written by Akkaynak and her mentor Dr. Tali Treibitz. It is primarily geared towards fellow scientists who rely on accurate color representation when analyzing images from below the water’s surface.

For example, it could help track the effects of bleaching on coral reefs. Likewise, Sea-thru might be helpful to scientists documenting new species of sea life, coral, or any other unusual underwater findings.

However, Sea-thru would also be exceptionally cool if it were placed in the hands of professional undersea photographers. National Geographic’s Paul Nicklen comes to mind when thinking of ideal candidates to put this algorithm to artistic use.

Regardless of its eventual implications, it’s clear that Sea-thru will make a splash in the underwater photography world. By being able to accurately see colors without the influence of water, we can get a better idea of what life under the waves actually looks like.

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