Section: Application Domains

First axis: Geometry of vision

A suggestive application of sub-Riemannian geometry and in particular of hypoelliptic diffusion comes from a model of geometry of vision describing the functional architecture of the primary visual cortex V1. In 1958, Hubel and Wiesel (Nobel in 1981) observed that the visual cortex V1 is endowed with the so-called pinwheel structure, characterized by neurons grouped into orientation columns, that are sensible both to positions and directions [109]. The mathematical rephrasing of this discovery is that the visual cortex lifts an image from 𝐑2 into the bundle of directions of the plane [95], [136], [138], [108].

A simplified version of the model can be described as follows: neurons of V1 are grouped into orientation columns, each of them being sensitive to visual stimuli at a given point of the retina and for a given direction on it. The retina is modeled by the real plane, i.e., each point is represented by a pair (x,y)2, while the directions at a given point are modeled by the projective line, i.e. an element θ of the projective line P1. Hence, the primary visual cortex V1 is modeled by the so called projective tangent bundle PTR 2=𝐑2×𝐏1. From a neurological point of view, orientation columns are in turn grouped into hypercolumns, each of them being sensitive to stimuli at a given point (x,y) with any direction.

Orientation columns are connected between them in two different ways. The first kind of connections are the vertical (inhibitory) ones, which connect orientation columns belonging to the same hypercolumn and sensible to similar directions. The second kind of connections are the horizontal (excitatory) connections, which connect neurons belonging to different (but not too far) hypercolumns and sensible to the same directions. The resulting metric structure is sub-Riemannian and the model obtained in this way provides a convincing explanation in terms of sub-Riemannian geodesics of gestalt phenomena such as Kanizsa illusory contours.

The sub-Riemannian model for image representation of V1 has a great potential of yielding powerful bio-inspired image processing algorithms [102], [88]. Image inpainting, for instance, can be implemented by reconstructing an incomplete image by activating orientation columns in the missing regions in accordance with sub-Riemannian non-isotropic constraints. The process intrinsically defines an hypoelliptic heat equation on PTR 2 which can be integrated numerically using non-commutative Fourier analysis on a suitable semidiscretization of the group of roto-translations of the plane [86].

We have been working on the model and its software implementation since 2012. This work has been supported by several project, as the ERC starting grant GeCoMethods and the ERC Proof of Concept ARTIV1 of U. Boscain, and the ANR GCM.

A parallel approach that we will pursue and combine with this first one is based on pattern matching in the group of diffeomorphisms. We want to extend this approach, already explored in the Riemannian setting [151], [126], to the general sub-Riemannian framework. The paradigm of the approach is the following: consider a distortable object, more or less rigid, discretized into a certain number of points. One may track its distortion by considering the paths drawn by these points. One would however like to know how the object itself (and not its discretized version) has been distorted. The study in [151], [126] shed light on the importance of Riemannian geometry in this kind of problem. In particular, they study the Riemannian submersion obtained by making the group of diffeomorphisms act transitively on the manifold formed by the points of the discretization, minimizing a certain energy so as to take into account the whole object. Settled as such, the problem is Riemannian, but if one considers objects involving connections, or submitted to nonholonomic constraints, like in medical imaging where one tracks the motions of organs, then one comes up with a sub-Riemannian problem. The transitive group is then far bigger, and the aim is to lift curves submitted to these nonholonomic constraints into curves in the set of diffeomorphisms satisfying the corresponding constraints, in a unique way and minimizing an energy (giving rise to a sub-Riemannian structure).