What is the best image segmentation tool ?

What Is The Best Image Segmentation Tool?

Data annotation is the process of labeling training data to make it usable in supervised learning tasks. In 2018 the survey What AI can and can’t do (yet) for your business by McKinsey states that the first limitation to AI applications is the lack of labeled data. To tackle this limitation we created Kili technology annotation platform to provide companies with relevant high quality labeled data. As a matter of fact, while AI allows us to automate more and more human tasks, we cannot get rid of the “human in the loop” when it comes to data annotation. Human data annotation requires an organized workforce and  a software to provide the quality and quantity of labeled data for industrial AI applications. 

Labeled images are the backbone of AI systems such as self-driving cars and automated medical imagery analysis which now requires tens, hundreds of thousands, even millions of images to train. Therefore the acquisition cost of those data can not be neglected. Previous techniques of annotation such as bounding boxes while cheap limits the performance of deep learning models. Bounding boxes are limited when annotating overlapping entities or non rectangular objects. As shown below the bounding box annotating a crack in a wall covers the entire image ! Nowadays, pixel accurate labeling has become the new norm as it removes most of the noise that bounding boxes introduce in the data. Because annotating an image at pixel level is more time consuming than drawing a bounding box it can cost up to 10x more ! 

In this article we will focus on image segmentation and offer a comparison of the segmentation tools available at the moment and see how they can reduce annotation time and cost.

Image segmentation

Image segmentation is the process of partitioning an image in multiple segments. Every pixel within a segment represents a semantic concept label. Here we present the three task of image segmentation present in the industry:

  1. Instance segmentation: in instance segmentation each individual object of the image is annotated at the pixel level. It is the equivalent of pixel accurate bounding boxes.
  2. Semantic segmentation: in semantic segmentation requires each pixel of an image to be associated to a semantic label without distinction of instances.
  3. Panoptic segmentation: in panoptic segmentation is a combination of instance segmentation and semantic segmentation, each pixels is associated to a semantic label taking into account each instance of objects within the image

In addition to being time consuming, image segmentation is also not safe against human errors especially when taking into account the tiredness of annotators after labeling multiple images ! 

Tooling for image segmentation

We can class the tools used to perform image segmentation in three categories:

  1. Digital brush and pen

In its most classic form pixel accurate segmentation can be obtained using a digital pen or digital brush that allow the user to manually annotate the different entities of an image. When considering such a tool, a user should verify that the drawn boundaries of objects are automatically adjusted when overlapping. This functionality will save you a lot of time when annotating, as it can be really tedious to perfectly annotate objects with common boundaries. 

  1. Deep learning powered tools

Recent progress in deep learning and image segmentation such as the papers Polygon RNN+ and DEXTR, allowed for the creation of deep learning based tools for image segmentation. Those tools allow the user to generate a pixel accurate annotation of an object either by placing a bounding box around it (left) or by placing multiple points among its edges (right).

  1. Segmentation based tools 

Tools based on superpixels segmentation displays pre-computed clusters of pixels on the image allowing users to annotate an object in only a couple clicks. In order to be relevant those tools must generate superpixels that precisely separate the different objects of an image. One of the most known superpixel algorithms known is SLIC, which performs segmentation of the image based on the pixel colors and position which perform quite poorly in real life (right). Newer techniques of superpixels have come to light which are capable to faster produce really accurate segmentation of entities within an image allowing to consequently speed up the annotation process (left). 

Newer superpixels algortihms are able to clearly display boundaries of objects (left)

As shown on the previous pictures adaptive superpixels allow for a high precision segmentation of entities within a picture. Using this tool relieves the annotator from drawing complex boundaries of an object increasing both annotation speed and quality.

Experimentation of segmentation tools 

In this part we compare the three categories of tools by annotating pictures and measuring the time taken to perform the image/instance segmentation on different use cases. In the first use cases we performed instance segmentation only identifying some entities within the  image whereas for the last application we performed the full image segmentation. We measured for each task the time taken to annotate images at the pixel level until reaching similar quality of annotation.

Display format
Autonomous driving
Satellite imagery
Crop detection
Cell detection
Superpixels outperform deep learning on most use cases

From the presented experiments we can conclude the following:

  • Deep learning powered tools are somewhat efficient but depending on the use case their performance is mitigated. As an example, we did not display the results of those tool on the satellite image as we mostly had to use the digital pen to adjust the generated annotations. While performing the annotations we observed that those tools usually require too many clicks to obtain a decent segmentation of an object. First you have to place the bounding box (or points) around the object and then you need to adapt the boundaries so that it fits perfectly. These steps are time consuming and costly when annotating multiple objects.
  • Superpixels are instead really efficient in most use cases. When well calculated only a few clicks allows you to annotate an object within an image. A key funcitonality that superpixels tools must provide is the ability to change the superpixels granularity in real time. To be really effective this change of granularity must respect the continuity between the boundaries of the different size of superpixels. In addition, the ability to change the color and brightness of those boundaries is real plus when annotating. When the quality of the superpixels is provided and the UX includes the previous functionalities superpixels become a powerful tool to speed up annotation.

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