by Laurie Rowell

Picture This: New Format Successor to JPEG

Nov 09, 20076 mins

JPEG has been the standard for photographic images on the Web and in online presentations for 20 years. Now it's up for replacement.

Thousands of photographs are posted to the Web every day in countries all over the world. Nearly all are JPEGs. But change may be on the way. In October, the Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPEG) voted on a replacement for the 20-year-old standard.

Standards bodies are, by definition, deliberative, so it’s no surprise the committee had some points to argue over the past year.

To begin, they needed to make sure the new standard would truly be open since it came from a source many found suspect. Microsoft, in a move that had many knocking on the gift horse to see if it was hollow, offered the new JPEG-XR (extended range) format to the Joint Photographic Experts Group free of charge. Could this really be true?

“We’ve been convinced that yes, it is,” says Louis Sharpe, JPEG committee member and part of the US delegation to the upcoming meeting in Kobe, Japan. Microsoft has agreed that the committee will hold the copyright to the new specifications currently under construction. Furthermore, for the software now in development, Microsoft’s stated intention is that “it will be copyrighted to the JPEG committee to be given away under any kind of license that the JPEG committee decides,” says Sharpe. “Which is perfect, because JPEG 2000 never quite had that, whereas old JPEG did have a free and open and pretty good implementation that was easy to understand and easy to use.”

But laying aside any implications of Microsoft hegemony, the committee had another concern. They had already designated JPEG 2000 as the heir apparent to JPEG; a lot of time, money and technology had been invested in maturing this standard. “We didn’t want to kill JPEG 2000 in its crib,” says Sharpe, “but it’s getting to be a pretty big baby; it’s seven years old. So it did seem sensible to be open about it.”

JPEG 2000 has struggled for acceptance ever since it was introduced, at least in part because of its size and its extremely comprehensive character. More than just a format standard, it is a complex system of related standards that include specifications not available in JPEG XR: sophisticated security encryptions that lock only parts of an image and wireless extensions that make it fault-tolerant over a noisy line.

“JPEG 2000 really did aim to be the be-all and end-all and true replacement for every JPEG application,” says Sharpe.

Its fidelity and accuracy make it suitable for sophisticated Web applications like medical and satellite imaging, supporters claim, but it’s not the choice for the amateur photographer who wants to post a few pics on the Web.

And that spot—the one where the amateur photographer snaps the digital image—could very well be where JPEG XR will change our view of the world from the Web.

New Market Scenarios

On November 12-16, The Joint Photographic Experts Group will meet in Kobe, Japan where the first committee draft of JPEG XR will be approved. “We may introduce new market scenarios,” says Robert Rossi, principal program manager lead in the Core Media Processing Group at Microsoft. For the past year or so, he has carefully shepherded JPEG XR through the JPEG committee.

Rossi sees Web 2.0-style scenarios as one arena where JPEG XR will affect business profoundly. As JPEG XR allows amateurs to take better photographs, those formal corporate videos will give way to lively ad hoc presentations that rely on fast capture, fast manipulation and fast publication.

“What if the average person at a corporation carried a small multimedia ingestion device?” Rossi says, defining “ingestion” as “image capture.” “They could capture media images from the white board and annotate with audio. They could snap pictures of documents and record small video segments. Then they could combine all that with media publishing to create small stories, small multimedia progressions that could be constructed with far less effort than using PowerPoint,” he says.

It could certainly make for a nifty way to take meeting minutes, offer job training or present an enterprisewide demo of the company’s latest widget—although the camera-shy might gulp at the thought of all those free-floating ingestion devices.

The extraordinary dynamic range of JPEG XR means you can take indoor images without augmenting lighting. “Imagine seeing a factory floor and deciding that the lighting is inadequate,” he says. “An image taken by an amateur might be accurate enough in its capture and its distribution modes for a reviewer to zoom in close and understand exactly how the poor lighting condition inhibits work.”

There is another aspect to these instant images. Not only are they better from initial capture, but on their way to publication, they can be run through a post-capture clean-up process, enabled by JPEG XR. “Features of the nondestructive decode and re-encoding allow the image to enter a service environment that automatically enhances the media,” explains Rossi. “They understand things that will be deficient for human viewing and they adjust the image automatically and re-encode it.”

And there’s more to come for JPEG XR. “In the next steps, we will be extending the container technology for JPEG XR and integrating it with JPEG Systems, which will migrate some of the better systems-level technologies from JPEG 2000 and introduce new systems-level technologies,” says Rossi. This would enable giant immersive 3D images, similar in character to the demos of Photosynth, that show how a viewer can dive into an image, walk around it on all sides, examine it from a distance or move close enough to squint at the smallest detail. Online stores built on this model would allow for virtual interaction as customers view shelves stocked with merchandise that they could examine from every angle. It isn’t just online images that will be affected. JPEG XR will render exceptional printed images that enable “hard-copy, professional-level publications on an ad hoc basis,” according to Rossi.

What should managers be doing to position themselves? “They should immerse themselves in Web 2.0,” Rossi says.

Recently, Rossi had his faith in Web. 2.0 confirmed as he watched newscasts of the recent fires in Southern California with growing frustration. His sister was safe on a cruise ship, but “I didn’t know if her home was in jeopardy,” he says. Unfortunately neither the television news nor the Web reports were providing adequate geographical context.Then Rossi found a Web 2.0 mash-up website where a contributor had pulled together images of the fire from other sites and presented them as a coherent story that explained just which neighborhoods were threatened. “The information that I got in two minutes on MySpace was far more valuable to me. “I do lots of experiments, even with this crummy little device,” Rossi continues, holding up his cell phone. “In meetings…we take pictures of the stuff on the board. Then we can add text and package that all up to make a quick artifact that captures that moment….When these things are linked topic-wise it’s a different kind of Web.”

In Rossi’s view, the implications go far beyond the enterprise. “This is really creating an army of information agents that are very effective. I think it opens a new opportunity with tools and underlying technologies that allow people to be a small segment of the six o’clock news.”