The basics of stereo depth vision

Stereo depth vision basics with Intel RealSense

By Sergey Dorodnicov, Intel® RealSense™ SDK Manager

In this post, we’ll cover the basics of stereoscopic vision, including block-matching, calibration and rectification, depth from stereo using opencv, passive vs. active stereo, and relation to structured light.

Why Depth?

Regular consumer web-cams offer streams of RGB data within the visible spectrum that can be used for object recognition and tracking, as well as basic scene understanding.

  • Identifying the exact dimensions of physical objects is still a challenge, even using machine learning. This is where depth cameras can help.

Using a depth camera, you can add a brand‑new channel of information, with distance to every pixel. This new channel is used just like the others — for training and image processing, but also for measurement and scene reconstruction.

Stereoscopic Vision

Depth from Stereo is a classic computer vision algorithm inspired by the human binocular vision system. It relies on two parallel view‑ports and calculates depth by estimating disparities between matching key‑points in the left and right images:

Principles of Depth from Stereo
Depth from Stereo
algorithm finds disparity by matching blocks in left and right images

Most naive implementation of this idea is the SSD (Sum of Squared Differences) block‑matching algorithm:

import numpy

fx = 942.8        # lense focal length
baseline = 54.8   # distance in mm between the two cameras
disparities = 64  # num of disparities to consider
block = 15        # block size to match
units = 0.001     # depth units

for i in xrange(block, left.shape[0] - block - 1):
    for j in xrange(block + disparities, left.shape[1] - block - 1):
        ssd = numpy.empty([disparities, 1])

        # calc SSD at all possible disparities
        l = left[(i - block):(i + block), (j - block):(j + block)]
        for d in xrange(0, disparities):
            r = right[(i - block):(i + block), (j - d - block):(j - d + block)]
            ssd[d] = numpy.sum((l[:,:]-r[:,:])**2)

        # select the best match
        disparity[i, j] = numpy.argmin(ssd)

# Convert disparity to depth
depth = np.zeros(shape=left.shape).astype(float)
depth[disparity > 0] = (fx * baseline) / (units * disparity[disparity > 0])

Rectified image pair preview.
Rectified image pair used as input to the algorithm

Preview of naive SSD block-matching implementation
Depth map produced by the naive SSD block-matching implementation

Animation: Point-cloud reconstructed using SSD block-matching
Point-cloud reconstructed using SSD block-matching

There are several challenges that any actual product has to overcome:

  • Ensuring that the images are in fact coming from two parallel views
  • Filtering out bad pixels where matching failed due to occlusion
  • Expanding the range of generated disparities from fixed set of integers to achieve sub‑pixel accuracy

Calibration and Rectification

Having two exactly parallel view‑ports is challenging. While it is possible to generalize the algorithm to any two calibrated cameras (by matching along epipolar lines), the more common approach is image rectification. During this step left and right images are re‑projected to a common virtual plane:

Image Rectification illustrated
Image Rectification illustrated (Source: Wikipedia*)

Software Stereo

OpenCV library has everything you need to get started with depth:

import numpy
import cv2

fx = 942.8          # lense focal length
baseline = 54.8     # distance in mm between the two cameras
disparities = 128   # num of disparities to consider
block = 31          # block size to match
units = 0.001       # depth units

sbm = cv2.StereoBM_create(numDisparities=disparities,

disparity = sbm.compute(left, right)

depth = np.zeros(shape=left.shape).astype(float)
depth[disparity > 0] = (fx * baseline) / (units * disparity[disparity > 0])

Animation: Point-cloud generated using opencv stereobm algorithm
Point-cloud generated using opencv stereobm algorithm

The average running time of stereobm on an Intel(R) Core(TM) i5‑6600K CPU is around 110 ms offering effective 9 frames‑per‑second (FPS).

  • Get the full source code here

Passive vs Active Stereo

The quality of the results you’ll get with this algorithm depends primarily on the density of visually distinguishable points (features) for the algorithm to match. Any source of texture — natural or artificial — will significantly improve the accuracy.

That’s why it’s extremely useful to have an optional texture projector that can usually add details outside of the visible spectrum. In addition, you can use this projector as an artificial source of light for nighttime or dark situations.

Preview of the Input images illuminated with texture projector
Input images illuminated with texture projector

Preview of opencv stereobm without projector vs stereobm with projector.
Left: opencv stereobm without projector. Right: stereobm with projector.

Structured‑Light Approach

Structured-Light is an alternative approach to depth from stereo. It relies on recognizing a specific projected pattern in a single image.

Structured‑light solutions do offer certain benefits; however, they are fragile. Any external interference, from the sun or another structured‑light device, will prevent users from achieving any depth.

In addition, because a laser projector must illuminate the entire scene, power consumption goes up with range, which often requires a dedicated power source.

Depth from stereo on the other hand, only benefits from multi-camera setup and can be used with or without projector.

Intel RealSense D400 series depth cameras

Intel RealSense D400 Family stereo depth cameras

Intel RealSense D400 cameras:

  1. Come fully calibrated, producing hardware‑rectified pairs of images
  2. Perform all depth calculations at up to 90 FPS
  3. Offer sub‑pixel accuracy and high fill-rate
  4. Provide an on‑board texture projector for tough lighting conditions
  5. Run on standard USB 5V power-source, drawing about 1‑1.5 W
  6. Designed from the ground up to:
    • Address conditions critical to robotic/drone developers
    • Overcome the limitations of structured light

Preview of the depth-map using Intel RealSense D415 camera
Depth-map using Intel RealSense D415 stereo camera

Preview of the Point-cloud using Intel RealSense D415 depth camera
Point-cloud using Intel RealSense D415 stereo camera


Just like opencv, Intel RealSense technology offers open‑source and cross‑platform set of APIs for getting depth data.

Check out these resources for more info:

  1. electronicdesign – New Intel RealSense Cameras Deliver Low-Cost 3D Solutions
  2. Augmented World Expo – Help Your Embedded Systems See, Navigate, and Understand
  3. List of whitepapers covering Intel RealSense D400 cameras technology
  4. Where to buy Intel RealSense stereo depth cameras


We’re Here to Help

Let’s talk about how Intel RealSense depth sensing cameras can enhance your solution.

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