Video based quantification of activity

Although not an inspiring or catchy title, our study has just been published, demonstrating that fixed-frame video capture can provide a quantitative assessment of energetics (citation below).

Summary of the study

Infrared thermal imaging is a passive imaging technique that captures the emitted radiation from an object to estimate surface temperature, often for inference of heat transfer.

Infrared thermal imaging offers the potential to detect movement without the challenges of glare, shadows, or changes in lighting associated with visual digital imaging or active infrared imaging.

In this paper, we employ a frame subtraction algorithm for extracting the pixel-by-pixel relative change in signal from a fixed focus video file, tailored for use with thermal imaging videos.  

A greyscale video of a metronome. Inanimate objects are still visible to the thermal camera due to slight differences in thermal equilibration, emissivity, and reflectivity across the different surfaces.
Same video as above, but as an “absolute difference image”, where each frame is subtracted from the previous frame and positized (i.e. the absolute value taken for each pixel difference). During zero motion, the image space is black with low variability based on sensor noise (sd number in upper left). After motion starts (~0:11), you clearly see the moving metronome as each frame difference depicts how pixels in a fixed frame differ.

By then cumulatively summing the sd for each frame across an entire video, we are able to assign quantitative activity assessments to thermal imaging data for comparison with simultaneous recordings of metabolic rates. We tested the accuracy and limits of this approach by analyzing movement of a metronome (see above) and provide an example of the approach to a study of Darwin’s finches.

Fixed frame Different Image Thermography video of a bird filmed over a long period of time within a viewing chamber. The cumulative difference image provides a slope value that corresponds to an indication of movement. Scale is relative to the degree of motion.

Simultaneous measurements of oxygen consumption (dark black lines) match up well with smoothed estimates (blue lines) of the activity score (grey lines) derived from the difference image thermography videos. Resolving fast respirometry data is difficult and best left to the experts at Sable Systems, but the average trends are informative for energy expenditure.
Correlations between 5 minute average oxygen consumption measurements and the activity values line up well at the individual level.

In principle, this “Difference Imaging Thermography” (DIT) would allow for activity data to be standardized to energetic measurements and could be applied to any radiometric imaging system.


Fixed frame is required. Changing the reference frame or using a camera without a tripod would not work unless you do a lot of motion correction. Also, we used infrared thermal imaging because we were collecting data for a different purpose (still writing those up!), but we think that any sort of imaging should work, provided it produces a simple, ratiometric or radiometric image. Usually monochrome cameras or near infrared cameras produce a signal that is a simple greyscale image. Reflected light might interfere with the approach, so this is why we argued this might be an addition use of thermal imaging videos.

Behind the scenes

This paper took a long time to put together, but was the beginning of my lab’s journey into R, ImageJ, and open source coding. A lot has changed since I started the data analysis. Combing through 500 Gb of video files, extracting, processing, converting them into something manageable took the better part of 2 weeks on a supercomputer, until I realised that there were more efficient routes!

We have since created routines in ImageJ that help facilitate the conversions and have placed those routines in a github repository, where we will write them up as a methods paper in the future. The principles outlined in the paper are not themselves novel. Sliding average and frame subtraction routines are common in video processing software. Assessing whether the motion captured is correlated with meaningful biological information is what we hoped to capture with the study.


Tattersall, GJ, Danner, RM, Chaves, JA, and Levesque, DL. 2020. Activity analysis of thermal imaging videos using a difference imaging approach. Journal of Thermal Biology.  91 102611

Link to the full text here (first 50 clicks can access the paper).