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The Faultline


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 Last update: 2009/09/06

 

A faultline in Leonardo's professional life that led to the creation of MPEG

 

During my previous incarnation as a researcher in the video coding field, I made more than one attempt at unification. But do not think of the lofty thoughts of global convergence of businesses. At that time my intention was just to achieve common coding architectures that could suit the needs of different industries, irrespective of the ultimate fate of convergent industries. What mattered to me was to enable a "sharing" of development costs for the integrated circuits that were required to transform digital technologies from a promise of a bright but distant future to an equally bright reality - of tomorrow. It is fair to say, though, that in these attempts I was biased by my past experience dealing with devices capable of performing very complex operations on very high-bitrate signals and by the reluctance of telcos to make investments in the terminal device area. 

I gradually came to the conclusion that preaching the idea at conferences was not enough and that the only way to achieve my goals was by teaming up with other industries. The opportunity to put my ideas in practice was offered by the R&D program bearing the name of Research & development on Advanced Communication for Europe (RACE) that the CEC had launched in 1984, after the successful take-off of the European Strategic Program of Research and development in Information Technology (ESPRIT) program one year before. 

The Integrated Video Codec (IVICO) project, led by CSELT, was joined by telecommunication operators, broadcasting companies, and manufacturers of integrated circuit and terminal equipment. The project proposal declared the goal of defining, as a first step, a minimum number of common integrated circuits such as motion estimation and compensation, DCT, memory control, etc., with the intention of using them for a wide spectrum of applications. The project had a planned duration of one year after which it was expected to be funded for a full five-year period. 

For several reasons, however, the project was not continued after the first year "pilot" phase. One reason was the hostility from certain European quarters that were concerned by the prospect of being enabled to use integrated circuits for digital television in a few years - one of the not rare cases where it does not pay to deliver. This possibility clashed with the official policy of the CEC, prompted by some governments and some of the major manufacturers of CE equipment, that promoted standard and high definition television in analogue form under an improved form of analogue TV called MAC. The application of digital technologies to television would only happen - so ran the policy - "in the first decade of the third millennium". 

The demonstrated impossibility of executing a project to develop a microelectronic technology for AV coding, for use by multiple European industries, forced me to rethink the strategy. If the European context was not viable, then let's operate at the worldwide level so as to be shielded from influences and pressures of a non-technical nature. For somebody who wanted to see things happening for real, this was a scaling down of the original ambitions, because it was not conceivable to achieve an international development of a microelectronic technology. On the other hand, this scaling down was compensated by the prospect of achieving a truly global solution. In this latter case, it was clear that only specifications could be developed and not the technology. 

Chance (or Providence) offered the opportunity. During the Globecom conference in Houston, TX in December 1986, where I had a paper on IVICO, I met Hiroshi Yasuda, an alumnus of the University of Tokyo where he was a Ph.D. student like myself during the same years 1968-70. At that time he was well known for his excellent reading of karuta (from Portuguese carta, meaning trump, that the Portuguese had brought to Japan in the 16th century and that Japanese use to read Manyoshuu poems at end year's parties). After his Ph.D., Hiroshi had become a manager at NTT Communication Laboratories where he was in charge of video terminals. He invited me to come and see the Joint ISO-CCITT Photographic Coding Experts Group (JPEG) activity carried out by a group inside a Working Group (WG) of ISO of which he was the Convenor. 

Hiroshi's WG was formally ISO TC 97/SC 2/WG 8 "Coding of Audio and Picture Information". SC 2 was a Subcommittee (SC) of TC 97 "Data processing", the same TC that was developing OSI. TC 97 would become, one year later, the joint ISO/IEC Technical Committee JTC 1 "Information Technology", by incorporating the microprocessor standardisation activities of the IEC. SC 2's charter was the development of standards for "character sets", i.e. the code assignment to characters for use by computers. WG 8 was a new working group established to satisfy the standardisation needs created by the plans of several PTT administrations and companies to introduce pictorial information in various teletext and videotex systems (e.g. the famous Minitel deployed in France) already operational at that time. These systems already utilised ISO standards for characters, and audio and pictures were considered as a natural evolution. JPEG was a subgroup of WG 8 tasked with the development of a standard for coded representation of photographic images jointly with CCITT Study Group (SG) VIII "Telematic Services".

My first attendance at JPEG was at the March 1987 meeting in Darmstadt. The heterogeneous nature of the group immediately caused a favourable impression on me. Unlike the various groups of the Conf�rence Europ�enne des Postes et T�l�communications (CEPT) and of the European Telecommunication Standards Institute (ETSI) in which I had operated since the late 1970s, JPEG was populated by representatives of a wide range of companies such as telecommunication operators (British Telecom, Deutsche Telekom, KDD, NTT), broadcasting companies (CCETT, IBA), computer manufacturers (IBM, Digital), terminal equipment manufacturers (NEC, Mitsubishi), integrated circuits (Zoran), etc. By the time of the Copenhagen meeting in January 1988, I had convinced Hiroshi to establish a parallel group to JPEG, called Moving Picture Coding Experts Group (MPEG) with the mandate to develop standards for coded representation of moving pictures. The first project concerned video coding at a bitrate of about 1.5 Mbit/s for storage and retrieval applications "on digital storage media".

At the same meeting Greg Wallace, then with Digital Equipment Corporation, was appointed as JPEG chairman and another group, called Joint ISO-CCITT Binary Image Coding Experts Group (JBIG), for coding of bilevel pictures such as facsimile, was also established. Yasuhiro Yamazaki of KDD, another alumnus of the University of Tokyo in the same years 1968-70, was appointed as its chairman. 

The reader may think that the fact that three alumni of Tokyo University (Todai, as it is called in Japan) were occupying these positions in an international organisation is a proof that the Todai Mafia was at work. I can assure the reader that this was not the case. It was just one example of how a sometimes-benign and sometimes-malign fate drives the lives of humans.

 

 

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