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Electronic Imaging & Signal Processing

Seeing Is Understanding

Power in small packages: Electronic imaging goes where no one has gone before.

From oemagazine January 2005
31 January 2005, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.5200501.0004

Since George Smith and Williard Boyle developed the first charge-coupled device (CCD) at Bell Labs in 1969, futurists and scientists have imagined an infinite number of uses for electronic imaging. From aerial photography to baby's first picture, solid-state imagers have put the power of visual recording in pockets and hands, giving us unprecedented vision of our surroundings and data for our research.

Today, the convergence of microprocessors, communications, and imaging technologies is making the promise of electronic imaging a reality. "Twenty years ago, people were saying we can do almost anything with electronic imaging, but the question is what is enabling it all to happen today? Why now?" says Michael DeLuca, manager of products marketing for Kodak's Image Sensors Solutions division (Rochester, NY). The answer, says DeLuca: miniaturization and semiconductors.

Miniaturization does not simply mean making smaller sensors with smaller pixels, DeLuca says, but rather, it means combining these trends with physical experience to make smaller sensors as sensitive, capable, and rugged as their larger ancestors. When performance and miniaturization meet, electronic imaging evolves into the ubiquitous technology that we see today, he says. By adding complementary metal oxide semiconductor technology to the mix, cameras that used to require a sensor and several support chips to read CCD signals now can use a single chip. The resulting sensor module allows manufacturers and system developers to add electronic imaging to their devices without having to become experts in imaging themselves.

Jan Allebach, the Michael J. and Katherine R. Birck professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University (West Layfayette, IN), points to several areas where electronic imaging will further change the way we live, work, and play. As digital images flow around the world, thanks to improvements in wireless and wireline communication technology, researchers are focused on presenting, storing, searching, and verifying those images.

According to Allebach, digital image formats are prone to copying and counterfeiting, pushing scientists to develop new types of encryption and forensic methods to verify and protect the authenticity of digital and printed images. Companies continue to develop software that will improve the consumer's digital imaging experience, from simplified editing software that removes "red eye" in digital photographs, to data mining and search algorithms for visual images that do not use textual tags or other external tracking methods. As camera modules find their way into millions of cell phones around the world, easy image archiving, searching, and display will be as important to the consumer market as to TV broadcasters and commercial satellite companies.

In addition to penetrating our daily lives, electronic imaging is penetrating deeper into living organisms through digital x-rays, endoscopic modalities, and IR images. These technologies will not only enable better diagnosis of existing injuries and disease, but will lead to improved drug therapies by allowing researchers to watch in vivo interactions between drugs and living cells in a living specimen on both the micro and macro scale.

Medical imaging is one of the drivers behind standardizing color displays so that digital artifacts from file sharing and display do not compromise a physician's diagnosis. Right behind the medical industry is the entertainment industry, which stands to benefit from considerable cost savings and additional revenue through the digital distribution of movies to cinemas and homes once portable calibration and encryption techniques are finalized.

Like the microprocessor before it, electronic imaging is spreading to areas and applications beyond the imagination of its inventors. But luckily for us, there's a world of individuals ready to take Smith and Boyle's discovery and run with it into a future where experiencing something new doesn't necessarily require a ticket on a train or plane, just a flexible screen through which to see the world. oe