CUPERTINO, Calif. Expectations that the pending JPEG2000 standard will bolster the role of Internet-based digital imaging are sparking behind-the-scenes partnerships and product development activity among chip vendors, software suppliers, camera manufacturers and wireless companies. But developers say the cost and complexity of implementing the compression technology in hardware is a big challenge to JPEG2000's mainstream acceptance.
Industry experts believe that the latest Joint Photographic Experts Group spec which is on track to win International Standards Organization approval by year's end will enrich the Web with vivid pictures whose quality and resolution scale according to the receiver.
"We are hoping JPEG2000 will allow imaging to become a first-class citizen among Internet applications," said Daniel Lee, director of R&D at Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Internet imaging operation here, and head of the ISO JPEG committee. Images have always been treated as "an afterthought" in the world of HTML, which was optimized for text, he said.
In Lee's view, "The killer app for JPEG2000 is a handheld device combining both Internet applications and wireless access." As a model, he pointed to Japanese teenagers, who are "already flipping through movie stars' photos downloaded on their cell phones using NTT Docomo's I-mode, as though they are looking at a magazine."
In hopes of gaining a foothold in this young market, many companies are honing JPEG2000 plans.
Finally, the German company LuraTech, in Berlin, is aggressively promoting its wavelet-based software technology much of it ready to comply with JPEG2000 on the software application developer market, said Kay Luo, director of marketing for the U.S. branch of the company. The intent is to quickly make JPEG2000 plug-ins and viewers available as a standard feature of Web browsers and popular software programs such as Adobe's Photoshop, she said.
Swift transition expected
The boom in Internet commerce, combined with the advent of higher-resolution digital cameras and ever beefier desktop computers, has led companies involved in a broad range of imaging technologies to anticipate a swift transition to JPEG2000 possibly within a couple of years, according to the experts. Backers expect JPEG2000 to become the accepted, universal file format for digital images, whether on the Web or from digital cameras, printers, faxes, remote sensors or wireless transmissions.
With its core coding system scheduled to become an ISO standard before the year is out, this wavelet-based image-coding technology offers a series of features previously impossible with standard JPEG. Improved compression techniques provide richer content and higher resolution, and the scalability feature delivers images at a variety of detail levels and resolutions ranging from lossy to lossless from within the same file. Metadata mechanisms make it possible to incorporate additional non-image data as part of the file.
JPEG2000 "accomplishes with one mode what the original baseline JPEG solution hoped to offer with 44 largely incompatible modes," said Martin Boliek, leader of color image processing in Ricoh's California Research Center (Menlo Park, Calif.)
Yet for all its promise, JPEG2000 poses formidable technology challenges for those planning to develop systems based on it. For starters, the new spec uses coding technology that is fundamentally different from that of JPEG.
"Compared to the old baseline JPEG, the importance of the computational and especially the memory bottlenecks have clearly increased," IMEC's Nachtergaele pointed out. So "JPEG2000 encoders and decoders are expected to be at least twice as complex than those for baseline JPEG."
Ricoh's Boliek predicted that most digital cameras, even the new 3-megapixel monsters, will not have enough horsepower in their embedded microprocessors to handle JPEG2000 at least not for real-time encoding. "For the near-term, ASIC has to be the solution," he said.
Nachtergaele agreed. "ASIC solutions have the advantage that they can efficiently deal with both the high-throughput processing such as wavelet filtering as well as with the complex bit manipulations" needed for operations involved in arithmetic coding. On the other hand, "non-real-time applications can be done in software."
A reasonable interim solution for internal JPEG2000 chip development at Canon, said Kawamura, would be to embed a programmable DSP in a system to see how it works, tweak its performance, then embark on the in-house ASIC development.
Baseline JPEG required encoders to make important image-coding decisions up front, for compression ratio, resolution and pixel fidelity. In contrast, said Boliek, JPEG2000 offers great flexibility on a decoder, allowing an end user the person receiving an image to choose interactively, in real-time, the resolution and compression.
Depending on bandwidth or time limits, users can request a thumbnail, full-monitor resolution or print-quality resolution. Or a user can simply ask to access the image only at the appropriate resolution for his or her display. She can even request the delivery of only a particular region of an image, without transmitting the whole high-resolution enchilada.
All these "outer-loop operations" can be parsed from main encoding, said Boliek. That means they can all be handled on a desktop PC rather than on a digital camera; alternatively, a separate intelligent controller can be designed just for outer-loop operations, he said.
Meanwhile, JPEG2000 software development also has its challenges. The key is "to make sure your JPEG2000 software works well with other peripheral standards, particularly on the Internet, such as XML," said HP's Lee. Unlike baseline JPEG, JPEG2000 is designed to extract and expose the properties of images. XML can also describe image properties.
Camera makers like Canon see support for the JPEG2000 file format and applications among PC software developers as crucial. "We want to make sure the computer software support is there before launching our JPEG2000 imaging system, but we also don't want to lag in our product introduction if JPEG2000 software starts catching fire in the PC environment," said Kawamura.
Many advocates believe an open-source-code model is a key to spreading the JPEG2000 software gospel. HP's Lee said that his JPEG2000 committee is developing reference software as JPEG2000's Part 5 specifications. "Our goal is to get the support of the open-source community and hopefully it will drive JPEG2000 further," he said.
Besides such obvious applications as medical imaging, prepress or photo archives enabled by JPEG2000's lossless-compression feature (meaning no pixels are lost in compression), experts said that where JPEG2000 truly shines for mass market applications is in wireless applications.
That's because JPEG2000 lets the person using a wireless device see at least some form of a picture, even if not in full resolution, rather than draw a blank image at the truncation of transmission. JPEG2000 allows the image, without redundancy, to be "built up" as new data is added to data already received, said Boliek. The standard also incorporates "a strengthened error-resilience feature," said Lee.
Though the cost of electronics is a factor, he said, it is feasible to build "within a year" a digital camera whose LCD can display pictures not only shot by the camera itself but ones wirelessly downloaded from the Web.
Though JPEG2000 cameras and printers may not show up in volume for a year or two, migration to JPEG2000 is already under way in some parts of the world, according to Jean Barda, founder of Netimage, a photo archive management company based in France.
"I was the project manager for an EC-funded project called Migrator 2000, about migrating existing image banks to the open resources of JPEG2000," Barda said. "This is the first R&D project about JPEG2000, but there are going to be many more in the near future."
Intellectual-property (IP) issues related to the technology may become a sticking point. Most companies that claimed IP rights within the JPEG2000 committee have offered licensing at no cost "meaning no fee, no royalties," said Ricoh's Boliek. But this cooperation could crumble if JPEG2000 becomes the prevalent standard and somebody outside the JPEG2000 group members claims IP rights.
The next JPEG2000 meeting, set for July, "should address this topic more in depth," said Barda of Netimage.