BEIJING A three-way partnership among engineers in China and in the United States hopes to ignite a digital camera business in China based on the JPEG2000 standard. The effort, which has marshaled the resources of algorithm developers in Silicon Valley, ASIC designers in Beijing and OEMs around China, hopes to repeat the success of Video CD, the China-centric system that leapfrogged the analog VCR here to establish a market that now exceeds 14 million units a year.
One key to the project is an algorithm, developed and implemented in an FPGA by startup WIS Technologies Inc. (San Jose, Calif.), that uses one filter for both lossless and lossy techniques to slash the die size of a JPEG2000 device. The Institute of Microelectronics of Tsinghua University (IMETU) will work with the WIS algorithm to develop an ASIC that is expected to cost as little as $10 in high volume. The partners said the device could ship as early as next March.
While the indigenous digital camera business is still in its infancy, developers are lining up support from Chinese camera OEMs that they hope will back up their interest in digital technologies with their manufacturing clout. WIS and IMETU intend to seed those OEMs with a digital camera reference design based on the upcoming ASIC.
If China is indeed committed to JPEG2000, "they would be among the first ones to introduce JPEG2000-based digital still cameras," predicted Jacques Kauffmann, an industry analyst responsible for digital and new technologies market development at the Photo Marketing Association. One potential issue for Chinese consumers would be the need for a PC to operate with the camera, "but that may change over time," Kauffmann said.
Kauffmann drew parallels between China's camera and phone markets. "The country won't be fully wired for phone service, and everyone is expecting China to go wireless, leapfrogging the wired stage. As for cameras, if they start flooding the home market with low-priced digital cameras, the situation may be similar."
With its core coding system slated to become an International Standards Organization standard before the year is out, wavelet-based JPEG2000 image compression provides features beyond the capabilities of standard JPEG. Improved compression techniques provide higher resolution, and the technology's scalability feature delivers images at a variety of detail levels and resolutions, from lossy to lossless, within the same file. JPEG2000 has been described as an ideal imaging-coding scheme for Internet applications and wireless access. China is said to be planning a range of JPEG2000-equipped consumer devices, including digital cameras, cell phones and Internet appliances.
"The new cooperation model will adopt advantages of all three parties," said IMETU director Hongyi Chen. "WIS will focus on the research of new algorithms and core technologies, while Tsinghua will design an ASIC based on the technologies developed by WIS. And we will help system designers generate a total solution for manufacturing" digital still cameras based on the compression standard.
The FPGA that implements the WIS algorithm has been up and running for a number of weeks, said He Ouyang, a mathematician born in China and educated at Washington University (St. Louis) who founded WIS Technologies in 1998. The company now numbers 10 young engineers, all graduates of what Ouyang described as "top schools in China," focusing on the development of multimedia compression algorithms in imaging, video and audio.
WIS based its image-compression and image-enhancement core on a proprietary RISC CPU, called XRISC, that can run one instruction per clock cycle and is designed for housekeeping and formatting tasks. The chip also integrates a number of logic blocks, including a wavelet analyzer/synthesizer and quantizer, an arithmetic coder and coefficient bit plane, and a context generator.
WIS claims to have hit on a way to use 5-3 filters for lossy as well as lossless compression. The mathematical discovery will make it possible to simplify a JPEG2000 codec design without using a floating-point processor, claimed Ouyang. "A JPEG2000 codec, with a conventional design using 9-7 filters for lossy compression and 5-3 filters for lossless compression, requires about 500,000 gates," he said. The WIS implementation can "reduce the gate count to 200,000."
Ouyang said his company is thinking about donating the discovery to the JPEG2000 standards committee.
Just as China became the world's biggest digital video market by skipping a generation of analog VCR technologies and embracing Video CD, "we think that China will build a massive JPEG2000 market by leapfrogging standard JPEG," Ouyang predicted.
China's Ministry of Information Industry is said to be prepared to support R&D for the standard. And there's ample evidence to illustrate China's keen interest in digital still cameras, particularly those based on JPEG2000.
Domestic market leader Shanghai Seagull Camera Co. today pumps out 600,000 digital still cameras a year, all based on standard JPEG, with submillion- to 1 million-pixel capability. The company now is said to be pursuing cooperative agreements with leading technology and chip suppliers in the global market. Sources said potential partners include LSI Logic Corp. and several Japanese digital camera makers.
Phoenix Optical Inc. (Shangrao), China's number-two camera maker, is a latecomer to the digital market but recently launched two separate engineering projects focused on digital cameras. One is a joint venture with a Taiwanese producer called Sampo Corp. The other involves an agreement with Peking University, whose Remote Sensing Institute (RSI) will help Phoenix develop an advanced CMOS imager as well as compression and controller chips for use in digital cameras. Sources within RSI claimed the institute has successfully run JPEG2000 and other wavelet applications on a high-speed digital signal processor from Texas Instruments.
On the systems side, Shenzhen Yuan Wang City Multimedia Computer, according to Ouyang, has been in discussions with WIS to launch a JPEG2000 project under which WIS would be responsible for the core, Tsinghua for the back end and Shenzhen Yuan Wang City Multimedia for developing systems for digital still cameras and for marketing and manufacturing, "with the help of venture capital money." The Shenzhen company is working with IMETU now to complete a survey of China's digital still camera market.
Microsoft Research China (Beijing), a Tsinghua University group and Hong Kong Science and Technology University are jointly involved in delivering compressed images in the JPEG2000 format via the Internet. "In China, the research community moves forward much faster than the industrial developers," said Jin Li, a researcher and project leader at Microsoft Research China. "In our lab, we not only have realized the JPEG2000 compression functions but also have created many new features in this area." Li and his team have finished research on transmitting large images via a technique called pervasive distribution, embedded with the ability to browse any part of the picture by zooming in and out.
Past as prologue
It is unclear how long it may take for China to build momentum for JPEG2000 in its still-nascent digital camera market. But if the Video CD's past is prologue, all that may be necessary to trigger a huge market for the new technology is a handful of key committed Chinese executives both in China and in Silicon Valley pulling strings behind the scenes.
Baichuan Du, vice president professor at the Academy of Broadcasting and Science (Beijing), was an intimate witness to the Video CD market "miracle." A consultant at the time, Du teamed with partners based in China and with Edmund Sun, a cofounder of C-Cube Microsystems (Milpitas, Calif.), to plot the Video CD's debut in the early 1990s. Together, they created the first Video CD reference design for China's emerging crop of systems OEMs. The Video CD took China by storm within a very short time between 1995 and 1997 ushering in a digital entertainment revolution. By 1997, China's annual Video CD market had grown to 14 million units.
Ouyang spoke in similar fashion about the significance of his personal ties with key people in China, including Chen at Tsinghua University.
Founded in 1980, Tsinghua's Institute of Microelectronics is one of the main members of the Northern Microelectronics Research and Development Center of China. IMETU owns a VLSI pilot line with a 0.8-micron CMOS process capability and a capacity of 5,000 5-inch wafers per month.
In Chen's mind, an integration of foreign developers' system expertise with IMETU's ASIC design ability and Chinese market demand will provide the impetus for a state-of-the-art industrial model for China. He predicted that Chinese manufacturers will take the initiative on JPEG2000 once chip makers here begin manufacturing codecs.
As for China's JPEG2000 timetable, Chen said that IMETU will spend the next two months coordinating collaborations between the Chinese government and industry. The ASIC design work at Tsinghua University is expected to start by October and to take roughly three months to complete. By year's end, WIS Technologies and IMETU hope to provide the final ASIC design to an overseas foundry. The ASIC will be based on a 0.25- or 0.35-micron process technology, Chen said.