A Personal Faultline

A Personal Faultline

During my previous incarnation as a researcher in the video coding field, I made more than one attempt at unification. But do not expect 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, without considering the ultimate fate of the individual converged 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 even brighter reality – but 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, the reluctance of telcos to make investments in the terminal device area and the readiness of the CE industry to develop products without consideration of standards – provided a market existed. 

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 actually teaming up with other industries. The opportunity to put my ideas in practice was offered by the European 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 (at that time it was too early to think of a single chip doing everything) 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 discontinued after the first year “pilot” phase. One reason was the hostility from certain European quarters that were concerned by the prospect of being able to use integrated circuits for digital television in a few years – one of the not so rare cases where it does not pay to deliver. This possibility clashed with the official policy of the CEC, prompted by some European governments and some of the major European manufacturers of CE equipment, that promoted standard and high definition television in analogue form under an improved analogue TV version called MUltiplexed Analogue Components (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 the European industry at large, forced me to rethink the strategy. If the European industrial context was not open to sharing a vital technology, then operating at the worldwide level would shield me from influences and pressures of a non-technical nature from my backyard. For somebody who wanted to see things happening for real, this was a significant 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 diminution was compensated by the prospect of achieving a truly global solution, but then only of specification and not of technology. 

At that time (mid 1980s) it was not obvious which body should take care of the definition of the common core because “media-related” standardisation was scattered across the three main international bodies and their subdivisions:

  • CCITT (now ITU-T) handled Speech in SG XV WP 1 and Video in SG XV WP 2;
  • CCIR (now ITU-R) handled Audio in SG 10 and video in SG 11;
  • IEC handled Audio Recording in SC 60 A and Video Recording in SC 60 B; Audio-visual equipment in TC 84 and Receivers in SC 12A and SC 12 G;
  • ISO handled Photography in TC 42, Cinematography in TC 36 and Character sets in TC94/SC2.

Chance (or Providence) offered the opportunity to test my idea. 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 (a word derived from carta, meaning trump, that the Portuguese had brought when they first reached Japan in 1543, and that Japanese still use to read Hyakunin isshuu poems at year end’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 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 where another Subcommittee (SC 16) was developing the Open System Interconnection (OSI) standard. TC 97 would become, one year later, the joint ISO/IEC Technical Committee JTC 1 “Information Technology”, by incorporating the microprocessor standardisation and other IT 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 already operational at that time (e.g. the famous Minitel deployed in France). These systems already utilised ISO standards for characters, and audio and pictures were considered as their 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 and I was favourably impressed by the heterogeneous nature of the group. Unlike the various groups of the Conférence Européenne des Postes et Télécommunications (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 Equipment), 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.