Journal of Signal and Information Processing, 2011, 2, 279-286
doi:10.4236/jsip.2011.24040 Published Online November 2011 (
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. JSIP
Simple Human Gesture Detection and Recognition
Using a Feature Vector and a Real-Time
Histogram Based Algorithm
Iván Gómez-Conde, David Olivieri, Xosé Antón Vila, Stella Orozco-Ochoa
Department of Computer Science, University of Vigo, Ourense, Spain.
Email: {ivangconde, anton, moroo},
Received August 11th, 2011; revised September 12th, 2011; accepted September 22nd, 2011.
Gesture and action recognition for video surveillance is an active field of computer vision. Nowadays, there are several
techniques that attempt to address this problem by 3D mapping with a high computational cost. This paper describes
software algorithms that can detect the persons in the scene and analyze different actions and gestures in real time. The
motivation of this paper is to create a system for the tele-assistance of elderly, which could be used as early warning
monitor for anomalous events like falls or excessively long periods of inactivity. We use a method for foreg-
round-background segmentation and create a feature vector for discriminating and tracking several people in the scene.
Finally, a simple real-time histogram based algorithm is described for discriminating gestures and body positions
through a K-Means clustering.
Keywords: Computer Vision, Foreground Segmentation, Object Detection and Tracking, Gesture Recognition,
Tele-Assistance, Telecare
1. Introduction
Computer vision has entered an exciting phase of develo-
pment and use in recent years and has benefitted from
innovations in related fields such as machine learning,
improved Internet networks, computational power, and
camera technology. Present applications go far beyond
the simple security camera of a decade ago and now inc-
lude such fields as assembly line monitoring, sports me-
dicine, robotics, and medical tele-assistance. Indeed, dev-
eloping a system that accomplishes these complex tasks
requires coordinated techniques of image analysis, statis-
tical classification, segmentation, inference algorithms,
and state space estimation algorithms.
To understand the importance of this problem area, it
is interesting to appreciate some recent statistics related
to the growing elderly population. Life expectancy wo-
rldwide has risen sharply in recent years. In 2050 the
number of people aged 65 and over will exceed the
number of youth under 15 years, according to recent
demographic studies [1]. Combined with sociologic fac-
tors, there is thus a growing number of elderly people
that live alone or with their partners. While people may
need constant care, there are two problems: there are not
enough people to care for elderly population and the
government can not cope with this enormous social sp-
ending. This is the motivation for this paper because
Computer Vision (CV) can provide strong economic
savings by eliminating the need for 24 hour in-house
assistance by medical staff. A potential tele-assistance
application could use video to detect anomalous behavior,
such as falls or excessively long periods of inactivity [2].
Therefore, present systems are being developed that
collect a wide array of relevant medical information of
patients in their homes, and send this information to a
central server over the Internet. Thus, these systems pro-
vide clear economic cost reduction of primary care as
well as early warning monitoring patients before they
enter a critical phase, necessitating costly emergency care.
In general, determining human behavior is a difficult
problem in computer vision, and there are many different
approaches, including tracking the full 3D body motion,
to Bayesian inference tracking. A recent review by Poppe
[3] provides a whirlwind tour of algorithms and tech-
niques. For the problem of segmentation and tracking [4],
for example, the review by Hu [5] provides a useful re-
view and taxonomy of algorithms used in multi-object
Simple Human Gesture Detection and Recognition Using a Feature Vector and a Real-Time Histogram Based Algorithm
The main problems of computer vision are: first, we
must somehow detect what we consider to be the fore-
ground objects, then, we must track these objects in time
(over several video frames), and third, we must discern
something about what these objects are doing.
Detecting moving objects in a video scene and sepa-
rating them from the background is a challenging prob-
lem due to complications from illumination, shadows,
dynamic backgrounds etc [6]. Motion detection is con-
cerned with being able to notice objects that move within
a scene, thereby separating foreground objects from the
background. There are several techniques that have been
applied to motion detection [7] and can be grouped into
three broad categories: environmental modeling [8], mo-
tion segmentation [9], and object classification [10].
Once objects have been separated from the background,
we are interested in tracking these objects individually.
The goal is to track particular objects during subsequent
frames in the video sequence based upon their unique
characteristics and locations. An important research field
is to track multiple people in cluttered environments. This
is a challenging problem due to several factors: people
have similar shape or color, complex events such as run-
ning and walking may be within the same scene, or depth
perspective of real world cameras. Another challenging
problem that must be treated by the software is occlusions
with objects or other people. We shall briefly consider
four prominent strategies for implementing object track-
ing: region based [11], active contour based [12], feature
based [13] and model based [14].
Finally, we must distinguish body part positions for the
purpose of action and gesture recognition. There is a large
body of literature in the area of human action recognition.
Recent comprehensive surveys of human action in videos
are described by Poppe [3] and Forsyth [15]. As an exa-
mple of early approaches to this complex problem, a tem-
plate matching technique where body parts are repres-
ented by a deformable skeleton model which is mapped to
points on the body from frame to frame [16] and other
models using head trajectories and fuzzy logic for action
recognition [17]. Recently, some researchers are using
kernel classifiers and Bayesian probabilistic models to
construct tree models of foreground objects [18].
The problem of almost all these techniques is that they
produce an overabundance of information at the cost of
huge computation. This paper presents a more simplistic
and computationally viable approach for tracking and
gesture recognition.
Our system, based upon the OpenCV computer vision
library [19], captures real time video from a webcam, perf-
orms foreground object segmentation, tracks these objects
(humans), and subsequently determines a limited set of
human body actions and gestures in real time. A screen-
shot of the application developed is given in Figure 1.
This paper describes a computer vision application that
can be used in telecare for detecting anomalous events in.
The three contributions are: 1) a comparison of different
foreground-background algorithms, 2) a feature based
model for tracking multiple objects, and 3) a real time
method for detecting basic human body positions, that
could eventually be used in a behavior detection algo-
The paper is organized as follows: first, we describe the
details of motion detection, segmentation of objects, and
the methods we have developed for detecting anomalous
events. The Section 3 shows the experimental results and
discussion and finally we present the conclusions of this
2. Theory and Algorithms
Our system is a research application where the graphical
interface is designed to provide maximum information
about different parameters as well as easy comparison of
different segmentation algorithms. The system is not
meant for end-users at the moment. Instead, the architect-
ture of the system provides a plugin-framework for incl-
uding new ideas. A high level schema of our software
system is shown in Figure 2.
Figure 1. A screenshot of the main window of the applica-
Mot i on
Identi ficat ion
of individual
and Event
Class i f i ca t i on
Figure 2. Computer vision system for video surveillance.
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. JSIP
Simple Human Gesture Detection and Recognition Using a Feature Vector and a Real-Time Histogram Based Algorithm281
It consists of the basic components described in the
previous section, namely a foreground extraction, object
segmentation, tracking of individual objects and finally
event classification. First, we use a Gaussian Mixture
Model with the optimal settings for the background-for-
eground segmentation. Tracking of multiple objects is
performed by first clustering individual objects, or “bl-
obs”, from feature vectors formed by their dimensions,
position in the image, color space, and velocity vectors.
In order to experiment with different segmentation sch-
emes for discriminating events, we have implemented
histogram based algorithms.
2.1. Foreground Segmentation
The first phase of extracting information from videos
consists of performing basic image processing. These
include: loading the video, capturing individual frames,
and applying various smoothing filters. Next, blobs are id-
entified based upon movement between frames. For static
cameras, this amounts to simply taking note of pixel loca-
tions that change value from frame to frame within a
specified threshold. There are several sophisticated back-
ground subtraction methods for eliminating shadows and
other artifacts that we shall describe in the next section,
however the basic background subtraction is based upon
two ideas: 1) finding an appropriate mask for subtracting
moving objects in the foreground and 2) updating the
Two methods are typically employed: a Running aver-
age and Gaussian mixture model, where each pixel is cl-
assified to belong to a particular class (Figure 3).
2.1.1. Running A ve rage [19]
This technique is by far the easiest to comprehend. Each
point of the background is calculated taking the mean of
accumulated points over some pre-specified time interval,
. In order to control the influence of previous frames,
a weighting parameter
is used as a multiplying con-
stant in the following way:
 
,1, ,
xyAxyI xy
 (1)
where the matrix A as the accumulated pixel matrix,
xy the image, and
is the weighting parameter.
Figure 3. Execution of “running average (RA)” (second row)
and “Gaussian mixture model (GMM)” (third row).
For a constant value of
, the Running average is not
equivalent to the result of summing all of the values for
each pixel across a large set of images, and then dividing
by the total number of images to obtain the mean. This
method is better than simple mean because the most re-
cent contributions are given more weight than those far-
thest in the past. The parameter
essentially sets the
amount of time necessary for the influence of a previous
frame to fade out. In this paper we have tested with 8
values of
between 0 and 0.8.
Thus, the background is subtracted by calculating the
Running average of previous background images and the
current frame with the mask applied. An example using
this algorithm is given in Figure 4. The left image is the
generated mask. The second image is the resulting back-
ground image obtained from multiple calls to the Run-
ning average routine. The third image is the result of ap-
plying the mask to the current image. Finally, the fourth
image is the original image with rectangular contours
defining moving foreground objects, after applying im-
age segmentation.
2.1.2. Gaussia n Mi xt ure Mo del [7]
This model is able to eliminate many of the artifacts that
the Running average method is unable to treat. This
method models each background pixel as a mixture of K
Gaussian distributions (where K is typically a small
number from 3 to 5). Different Gaussians are assumed to
represent different colors. The weight parameters of the
mixture represent the time proportions that those colors
stay in the scene. The background components are det-
ermined by assuming that the background contains B
highest probable colors. The probable background colors
are the ones which stay longer. Static single-color objects
tend to form tight clusters in the color space while those
in movement form wider clusters due to different re-
flecting surfaces during the movement. This measure is
called the fitness value. To allow the model to adapt to
changes in illumination and run in real-time, an update
scheme is applied. It is based upon selective updating.
Every new pixel value is checked against an existing
model component to check the value of its fitness. The
first matched model component will be updated. If it
finds no match, a new Gaussian component will be added
with the mean at that point, a large covariance matrix and
a small value of weighting parameter.
Figure 4. Foreground subtraction results for a particular
frame in a video sequence.
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. JSIP
Simple Human Gesture Detection and Recognition Using a Feature Vector and a Real-Time Histogram Based Algorithm
We consider the values of a particular pixel over time
as a “pixel process”. At any time t, what is known about
a particular pixel, , is its history
{,pxpy }
 
,,, ,:1
xIpxpyi it (2)
where I is the image sequence. We choose to model the
recent history of each pixel,
x, as a mixture of
K Gaussian distributions. The probability that a certain
pixel has a value of t
at time t can be written as:
pxw x
w is the weight parameter of the th Gaussian
component, and
(, )
is the Normal distribution of
component, given by
Nj D
 
In the above equations,
is the mean and
is the covariance of the component.
The prior weights of the K distributions at time t are
adjusted as follows:
M (6)
is the learning rate and
is 1 for the
model which matched and 0 for the remaining models.
After this approximation, the weights are renormalized.
defines the time constant which determines change.
w is effectively a causal low-pass filtered average of
the (thresholded) posterior probability that pixel value-
shave matched model j given observations from time 1
through t.
The K distributions are ordered based on the fitness
value 2
and the first B distributions are used as a
model of the background of the scene where B is esti-
mated as:
arg minb
wT (7)
The threshold T is the minimum prior probability that
the background is in the scene. In this paper we have
tested with 8 values of variance between 1 and 5.
2.2. Finding and Tracking Individual Blobs
Foreground objects are identified in each frame as rectan-
gular blobs, which internally are separate images that can be
manipulated and analyzed. Only those objects of a certain
size are considered, thereby eliminating small artifacts that
can be considered as foreground like lighting changes in the
scene or small shadows. Therefore, the blobs with an area
less than a threshold are eliminated. For each blob, the
background mask is subtracted and a simple image erosion
operation is performed in order to be sure to eliminate any
background color contributions. This erosion process helps
in feature classification since common background pixels
don’t contribute to the object color histograms.
In order to classify each blob uniquely, we define the
following feature vector parameters (Figure 5): 1) the
size of the blob, 2) the Gaussian fitted values of RGB
components (the channels red, green and blue are ap-
proximated by three Gaussians), 3) the coordinates of the
blob center, and 4) the motion vector. Because of random
fluctuations in luminosity, smaller blobs appear, but we
discard them. The size of blobs is simply the sum of the
total number of pixels. We also normalize the feature
vectors by the number of pixels.
In order to match blobs from frame to frame, we per-
form a K-Means clustering [20] with: the size of the blob,
the coordinate X and Y of the center, the velocity of the
blob in the three previous frames and the mean, standard
deviation and skewness of the Gaussians of RGB compo-
nents. The number of clusters is the number of the blobs
in the frame. Since this can be expensive to calculate for
each frame, we only recalculate the full clustering algo-
rithm when blobs intersect. Figure 6 shows excellent
discrimination by using the norm histogram differences
between blobs for each color space.
In the plot, the x-axis is the difference of the red color
channel between blobs, while the y-axis is the norm of
the difference of histograms in the green channel. For a
particular video sequence, the results shown in Figure 6
demonstrate that two separate blobs are easily classified
with only the normalized color histograms.
The tracking algorithm used is similar to other systems
described in the literature. Once segmented foreground
objects have been separated, and for each object we have
formed a rectangular blob region, we characterize the blob
by its feature vector. Tracking is performed by matching
features of the rectangular regions. Thus, given N rectan-
gular blobs (N = number of blobs in current image), we
match all these rectangles with the previous frames.
The frame to frame information allows us to extract a
motion vector of the blob centroid, which we use to pre-
dict the updated position of each blob. In case of ambi-
guity, such as track merging due to crossing, we recalcu-
late the clusters. Thus, the situations where we explicitly
recalculate the entire feature vector are the following: 1)
objects can move in and out of the view-port, 2) objects
can be occluded by objects or by each other, and 3) com-
plex depth information must be obtained.
2.3. Detecting Events and Behavior for Telecare
For this work, we have considered a limited domain of
events that we should detect, the first experiment was
with four arm gestures, and the second with the body
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. JSIP
Simple Human Gesture Detection and Recognition Using a Feature Vector and a Real-Time Histogram Based Algorithm
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. JSIP
Gre e n
Figure 5. The feature vector parameters for classifying blobs.
Norm difference of channel green
Norm difference of channel red
005 10203040152535
Figure 6. Discrimination of the histograms of color space
between blobs in taken from different frames. The x-axis is
the norm difference of red, while the y-axis is the norm
difference histogram for green.
positions upright or horizontal, to detect falls. These two
cases are used to address anomalous behavior or simple
help signals for elderly in their home environments. In
order to test our histogram discriminatory technique,
video events were recorded, as shown in Figure 7.
The foreground object was subtracted from the back-
ground by the methods previously described. The blob
image is then eroded and we can obtain the histograms
by summing all the pixels in the vertical direction. This is
performed by dividing the image into equal-sized vertical
stripes, and summing over all nonzero pixels within each
slice for each color channel. Figure 7 shows the detected
rectangular blobs after subtracting the background mask
and the histograms of these figures.
Our analysis is based upon comparing histogram mo-
ment distributions through the normalized difference of
the moments of each histogram.
For each of the histograms obtained in Figure 8, and
for the histograms of Figure 9, statistical moments are
calculated and then normalized histograms (normalized
both by bins and by total number of points) are obtained.
Clustering can then be performed with these statistical
005 102030152505 10203015 25
05 10203015 25
05 1020301525
Figure 7. Simple histogram results for detecting arm gestures.
Simple Human Gesture Detection and Recognition Using a Feature Vector and a Real-Time Histogram Based Algorithm
0.10.2 0.3 0.4 0.50.6 0.7 0.8 0.91
010 20 3040 506070 80 90
Normalized sum of foreground pixels
Total number of pixels
Figure 8. Basic histogram technique used for the discri-
mination of the body position. The in set image demon-
strates the color space normalized to unity.
0.06 0.480.49 0.5 0.51 0.52 0.53 0.54 0.55 0.56
-0. 5
Cluster1 (figure 7b)
Cluster2 (figure 7d)
Cluster3 (figure 7a)
Cluster4 (figure 7c)
Cluster1 (body horizontal)
Cluster2 (body upright)
Third Moment
Third Moment
Square root of Second Moment
(Standard Deviation)
Square root of Second Moment
(Standard Deviation)
First Moment
First Moment
0.3 0.28
0.18 0.45
Figure 9. Clusters for identifying 4 groups of gestures of
arms and 2 groups of body positions with a K-means
2.4. Event Discrimination
Video sequence was recorded with typical actions/events
that we would like to detect, such as a person falling on
the floor. From each frame in the sequence, we calcu-
lated the histogram moments in the horizontal and verti-
cal direction,
, respectively, in order to
characterize body position. The results of comparing
(the vertical histogram) for two body positions,
representing the beginning and the ending of the video
sequence, are shown in Figure 8. The inset of Figure 8
shows the histograms normalized along the x-axis to the
total number of pixels.
In order to automatically discriminate the different
body positions, we can compare the moments of the his-
tograms obtained (Figure 9). We use a K-Means clus-
tering [20] for the training.
We begin by identifying groups (4 clusters for the arm
gestures of Figures 2 and 7 clusters for the body posi-
tions of Figure 8) of data points in 3-dimensional space
(the 3 first statistical moments of the histograms). The
data set 1
{, ,}
x consists of N observations (N =
120 for gestures and N = 60 for body positions) with the
mean, standard deviation and skewness of the histograms.
We formalize this notion introducing a set of
3-dimensional vectors k
, where , for ges-
tures and
1,, 4k
1, 2k
for body positions, in which k
the center of the cluster k. The initial values of k
are k
random values. For each data point n
, we introduce a
corresponding set of binary indicator variables
,nk , where k is the cluster assigned to the data
, so that if data point n
is assigned to cluster
k then ,1
, and 0
for . Then, we can
define the objective function for K clusters and N obser-
vations. We use a Euclidean distance given by:
nk nk
 (8)
which represents the sum of the squares of the distances
of each data point to its assigned vector k
. Our goal
was to find values for the
r and the
so as to
. We did this through an iterative procedure
in which each iteration involves two successive steps
corresponding to successive optimizations with respect to
the ,nk and the k
. Figure 9 shows the results of dif-
ferent clusters for the gestures of Figure 7 and the body
positions of Figure 8. In the test phase, we use a
k-nearest-neighbor to classify each new image (k = 3).
3. Experimental Results and Discussion
Our software application was written in C++ and uses the
OpenCV library [3], which is an open-source and
cross-platform standard library for developing a wide
range of real-time computer vision applications. For the
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. JSIP
Simple Human Gesture Detection and Recognition Using a Feature Vector and a Real-Time Histogram Based Algorithm285
graphical interface, the QT library is used since it pro-
vides excellent cross-platform performance. Existing
applications not only run on other desktop platforms, but
can be extended for inclusion in web-enabled applica-
tions as well as mobile and embedded operating systems
without the need for rewriting source code.
All the experimental tests and development were per-
formed on a standard PC, consisting of an Intel Pentium
D CPU 2.80 GHz, with 2 G of RAM and using the Ub-
untu 9.10 Linux operating system. Videos and images
were obtained from webcam with 2 M Pixel resolution.
For testing the system, many different video sequences
were recorded using different lighting situations and ob-
ject characteristics. A subset of them has been shown in
our examples in the previous section.
First, we performed a quantitative comparison between
two algorithms for foreground segmentation: Running
average and Gaussian mixture model. The data consisted
of 1 video sequence of resolution 640 × 480 pixels, 22
seconds of duration and 25 frames per second. We se-
lected the frames between 200 and 240. For each frame,
it was necessary to manually segment foreground objects
in order to have a ground truth quantitative comparison.
We calculate the number of foreground pixels labelled as
background (false negatives—FN), and the number of
background pixels labeled as foreground (false posi-
tives—FP), and the total percentage of wrongly labelled-
640 480FN FP. Comparisons are com-
plicated by the fact that sudden illumination changes
produce shadows increasing the object size, and modern
webcams constantly adapt to illumination changes.
Previously, we tested 16 configurations for modifying
the Running average and the Gaussian mixture model.
The Figure 10 shows the best results for the Running
average with small values for alpha (α = 0.05) and for the
Gaussian mixture model with (σ = 2.5). Gaussian Mixture
model always obtained the best results in all situations.
We do not perform blob clustering from frame to frame,
since it would be costly, but instead we re-calculate clus-
ters only when there are ambiguities (such as track cross-
ings). Our histogram method for determining human body
position is also costly and we are experimenting with the
optimal multiple of frames (such as every 25 frames) so
that we can still detect relevant body positions for real-
time processing.
The Figure 11 shows the time results on a logarithmic
scale of the performance of the algorithms with a video
of 30 fps and 12 seconds of duration. The results without
processing are: the blue line that represents the normal
video reproduction and the magenta line is the video
playing with our system. The results with processing are:
the red color that represents the foreground segmentation
and the green line adds the time for processing blob
clustering between each frame.
200 210 220 230240205 215 225235
% Error
Number of frame
Gaussian Mixture Model
Running Average
Figure 10. % error of the best configuration with the
running average model and the best configuration with the
Gaussian mixture model.
log (time in miliseconds)
log (number of frames)
“Background Foreground Segmentation”
“Video with Qt”
“Normal Video”
“Blob Detection”
Figure 11. Time of the performance of the system with the
different algorithms of foreground segmentation and blob
detection with a clustering from frame to frame.
As shown in the previous section, the results of Figure
10 demonstrate that we can use statistical moment com-
parisons of histograms in order to discriminate between
simple body positions. The testing was performed with
120 images for the gestures and 60 for the body positions,
obtaining a success rate of 100% for these experiments.
However, this method is not robust for discriminating
between similar actions.
Thus, we have found that our simple histogram tech-
niques for human body position has advantages such as:
works well for some cases of interest, is easy to implement
and works in real time, but it is not sufficiently robust.
4. Conclusions
In this paper we have described our preliminary work and
algorithms on a software system which shall allow us to
automatically track people and discriminate basic human
motion events. This system is actually part of a more
complete telemonitoring system under development by
our research group. The complete telecare system shall
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. JSIP
Simple Human Gesture Detection and Recognition Using a Feature Vector and a Real-Time Histogram Based Algorithm
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. JSIP
include additional information from sensors, providing a
complete information about the patients in their homes. In
this paper, however, we have restricted the study to video
algorithms that shall allow us to identify body positions
(standing, lying and bending), in order to ultimately trans-
late this information from a low level signal to a higher
semantic level.
The paper provides encouraging results and opens
many possibilities for future study. In particular, in the
field of foreground/background segmentation, the quan-
titative comparison we described is an effective method-
ology which can be used to optimize parameters in each
model. While the feature based tracking that we used in
this paper is rudimentary, a future study could combine
this information with modern sequential Monte Carlo
methods in order to obtain a more robust tracking.
Finally, while the histogram model developed in this
paper provides detection for a limited set of actions and
events, it is a fast real-time method, similar to motion
detection systems presently employed commercially, that
should have utility in real systems [19].
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