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JPEG 2000

by Dunc Petrie

I expect that most graphics artists - amateur and pro - are comfortable using the mainstays of graphic image formats for the Internet: GIFs and JPGs. Well, your expertise is about to be dealt a curveball. Since these formats were created, research has developed more sophisticated approaches. Besides, JPEG originated about ten years ago: current hardware brandishes more powerful processors and cheap memory. On the horizon is JPEG 2000 (from those wonderful folks who brought you JPG) that promises a host of improvements and the introduction of two new file extensions: JP2 and JPX.

Ideally, any compression scheme should feature:

    - high levels of compression (leading to minimal file size),
    - no loss of detail,
    - open standard (no royalties),
    - no visible artefacts,
    - no visible posterization (loss of colour information),
    - easy use (few user-controlled variables), and
    - fast execution.

The Internet has fuelled much of the demand for image compression since end-users expect a website to pop up instantly on-screen. Despite faster connections large image file sizes are self-defeating. Smaller file sizes were championed at the expense of image quality. Current schemes differ from the ideal: as compression ratios increase (and file sizes shrink) visual artefacts become increasingly evident. Early in the life-cycle of the current image formats these inadequacies were largely masked by the comparatively low resolution of desktop monitors and a restricted colour palette. The landscape has changed: the explosion in popularity of digital cameras and photo-quality colour inkjets has fuelled demands for algorithms (often referred to as a 'transform') that can deliver images with the resolution and colour fidelity of the original intact.

Why JPEG can't 'cut' it

Most of the current compression schemes rely upon some variant of a scheme called Discrete Cosine Transform (DCT) - relax, I will spare you the math - combined with other tweaks to minimize the perceived (human visual-brain interpretation) image quality degradation. This scheme is lossy; data that is squeezed out during encoding is lost forever. Yes, lossless encoding schemes exist: Huffman or run-length encoding (RLE) is an example. Simplified, RLE instead of recording a string (run) of 200 red pixels with the code 'red, red, red1/4' would be coded more economically as '200 times red.' DCT is more complex: suffice to say that it divides the image into 8x8 sub-blocks; each one is then processed separately, using the rules of the algorithm. Since the division of an image into blocks is consistent, these blocks occupy the same relative position within the image. Abrupt transitions in the original image (light colour to dark, for example) tend to create edge artefacts that become increasingly more evident as the compression ratio is increased. As an analogy, think of the mosaic effect that is used to hide a person's identity on television in an investigative report. Lossy schemes are preferred since they offer higher compression ratios. Hence, a conflict exists between image file size and quality.

The mathematics aside, JPEG imposes other constraints: most notably, colour must be eight bits per pixel and only the RGB model is supported. Indeed, the 'stacked blocks' relegate JPEG as unsuitable for use in video. Since artifacts are the most stable feature in a video frame they are particularly evident since the rest of the frame's contents are moving around them. While commercial graphics printing is remote from my forte, JPEG's failings would be glaringly evident in any printed material.

A bit of oblique theory

Regardless of the transform employed, if the compression is lossy then artefacts are a fact of life. Evaluation of artefacts is tricky science. First, you must quantify the error. On that basis you may have the numbers to support your conclusion that method A is better than method B. The kicker with numbers: they ignore the human conscious interpretation of the 'raw' eye-brain data. Assume that you are evaluating two versions of the same image: one has been compressed using an algorithm that results in some loss of sharpness; the other as a result of compression exhibits DCT-style blockiness. While the numerical amount of distortion may be the same, in most cases the former image is perceived as better since the error pattern is more diffused.

JPEG 2000 to the rescue

The new codec employs Wavelet Theory (a search on 'wavelet' on the Internet will satisfy your curiosity) that operates on the entire image (as a single entity rather than the blocks of DCT) and produces a continuous data stream instead of the chunks inherent in DCT; this approach eliminates the blocking artefacts. Wavelet theory deals with 'trends' - large image areas that have a slow rate of variation (for example, large expanse of a single colour), if any - and 'outliers' - concentrated nodes of intense activity (for example, edges). Compression can be lossy or lossless with lossy compression ratios up to 300:1. Practically, a compression ratio closer to 140:1 would define the ceiling for 'visibly lossless' (compression artefacts would remain invisible to a trained observer). The wavelet encoding process creates artefacts that are more difficult to perceive and characterize. They are much less visible in video sequences.

In comparison, the present JPEG would exhibit noticeable degradation at 30:1. The Wavelet transform encodes trends at a lower resolution and devotes more processing to the outliers. Wavelet images can be decompressed in a series of passes; each iteration improves the image quality (resolution and colour bit depth) up to a totally lossless reconstruction. The incorporation of a defined colour space, sRGB, provides built-in colour management. Considerable flexibility is possible since the standard offers definitions for extensions that would incorporate (singly or in any combination):

    - variable colour bit depths (up to 32 bits),
    - ICC colour profiles (necessary to support CMYK),
    - spot colours,
    - alpha layers (transparency),
    - masks,
    - metadata (copyright, camera /lens used, date/location, photographer),
    - error tolerance (repair damage due to noisy transmission lines)
    - multiple coding or mixed raster content (proposed)
    - video variant for Quick Time (proposed).

The multiple coding is intended for text and graphical content in the same document. When implemented, it would segment the graphics and text portions of a page. The graphics would be encoded with 'standard' JPEG 2000; a variation of the algorithm, tuned to maintain maximum sharpness of the letter forms, would be implemented to enhance OCR accuracy.

The competition

Another player, FlashPix, was a format developed by Kodak and partners for digital camera images. It can achieve many of the goals set for the JPEG 2000 format; however, the file sizes are larger.

In the larger scheme there are many Wavelet-dependent image storage formats; indeed, JPEG 2000 is not the first. The proprietary information is in the detail; in consequence, these processes are mutually exclusive. Compression engine suppliers include: LuRa Tech, Infinop, Summus, LizardTech, ER Mapper, and PIC Tools (there are likely others). Interoperability, using import/export filters, seems likely once JPEG 2000 has formed a user-base.


JPEG 2000 looks like a 'go.' It provides an incremental improvement on JPEG by offering higher compression ratios with less (visibly perceived) image degradation. Unlike GIF, proprietary issues (royalties) are not applicable. Many major players endorse the JPEG standard. While not a guarantee of success, a dearth of players would guarantee an early death. Once adopted, market penetration will depend upon its addition to graphics applications and browsers.

Given its native ability to incorporate many of the features that define current proprietary image formats (for example, transparency and alpha channels) combined with varying degrees of compression (even none) it has the credentials to replace these formats. Acceptance by the commercial printing industry remains an unknown; however, many industry leaders have apparently joined the JPEG 2000 standards committee. While nothing is guaranteed this format has, at least, the attributes that could satisfy that industry's technical requirements - a standard, at last?

Originally published: June, 2001

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