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Issue dated -08th April 2002







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New technologies advance the field of Image Processing

We are in the midst of a revolution sparked by rapid progress in digital image processing technology. Hareish Gur explains the nuances of Image Processing and looks at the range of applications in which the technology is being deployed

Image Processing is considered to be one of the most rapidly evolving areas of information technology today, with growing applications in all areas of business. This technology holds the possibility of developing the ultimate machine in the future that would be able to perform the visual functions of human beings. It also forms a core area of research within the computer science and engineering disciplines at most of the top universities and institutes in the US and other developed countries. As such, it forms the basis for all kinds of future visual automation.

Image Processing deals with images which are two-dimensional entities (such as scanned office documents, x-ray films, satellite pictures, etc) captured electronically through a scanner or camera system that digitises the spatially continuous coordinates to a sequence of 0’s and 1’s. A digital image is a mapping from the real three-dimensional world to a set of two-dimensional discrete points. Each of these spatially distinct points, holds a number that denotes grey level or colour for it, and can be conveniently fed to a digital computer for processing. Here, processing essentially means algorithmic enhancement, manipulation, or analysis (also understanding or recognition) of the digital image data. Every image processing technique or algorithm takes an input, an image or a sequence of images and produces an output, which may be a modified image and/or a description of the input image contents.

For example, if we give as input, a person’s photograph, an image processing system could return his or her name and whether or not that person is wearing glasses or a necktie. Since a digital computer is used in the process rather than an analogue one, this branch of studies is also popularly known as Digital Image Processing.

Importance of image data

According to one estimate, more than 75 percent of all the information received by man is visual. Some researchers arguably consider this figure to be as high as 99 percent! Even if we consider the conservative estimate, the remaining four senses contribute to only 25 percent of the total share. And man has known this since ancient times. Probably that’s the reason why the ancient Chinese coined the now popular proverb, “A picture speaks a thousand words.” It is very evident that vision is a major source of information for human beings, and thus if we could possibly provide similar visual faculties to machines, we shall be able to achieve visual automation for a very broad range of applications.

Image Processing vs. Computer Graphics

There generally is a bit of confusion in recognising the difference between the fields of Image Processing and Computer Graphics, often even in the minds of tech-savvy computer professionals. Actually, Image Processing and Computer Graphics are entirely different, almost the opposite of each other. A computer graphics system is involved with image synthesis, and not recognition or analysis, as in the case of Image Processing. The input of a computer graphics system consists of an item list that describes a scene and its purpose is to transform this list into a digital image, which could have been formed, if this scene would really exist. Morphing used in advertisements could be said to be the most commonly witnessed computer graphics technique. In contrast, input to an Image Processing system is always a real image formed via some physical phenomenon such as scanning, filming, etc. The main role of Image Processing is not to create information but to extract it, integrate it, make it explicit and usable.

Applications market

Broadly one can classify the applications areas into four categories: document and medical imaging, computer vision & industrial applications, remote sensing & space applications, and military applications.

From the IT industry viewpoint, Document and Medical imaging applications are the ones that have proliferated. According to an estimate, the international market for the first category alone is growing at about 25 percent CAGR (compounded annual growth rate), and is projected to be worth more than US$ 30 billion this year. The computer vision and industrial applications market is still in its nascent stage since common solutions cannot be applied across a varying range of industrial problems. The third category of remote sensing and space applications is mainly in the clutches of government departments or research organisations the world over, but it is definitely very heavily funded. NASA, ISRO and NRSA are a few of the organisations involved in this segment.

The last category of military and classified defence projects is the one for which the less said the better. Research work and finances of such projects are kept confidential and are anybody’s guess.

Coming back to the software perspective, for many years the computer industry has been promising that document imaging would solve a stack of paper-related ills. But little came of those promises, until the Internet began to change the dynamics of information. In today’s scenario, the benefits of electronically managing documents are not only surfacing but are also being widely accepted. Most business information resides on paper making documents one of the most highly valued assets of any business. Image processing technology leads to business applications such as Electronic Document Management System (EDMS), Workflow, etc, that manage data files and paper documents alike, to make the “paperless office” dream a reality. So, document and medical imaging are the most important applications of image processing technology as of now.

Office applications

EDMS in its most basic form, is just an archival-retrieval system. Archive and retrieval document image processing is concerned with simply replacing paper storage and filing by electronic movement of records. One could make freehand annotations or highlight a portion of a document electronically (just as could be done on paper), along with many other powerful tools for full-text searching, security and controlled sharing, etc. Users can achieve huge RoI on this through benefits such as reduced storage space cost, instant access to documents, reduced risks of lost or missing documents, and manpower reduction, thereby providing a cost-effective solution, as also increasing organisational efficiency.

Workflow solutions automate a business process, in whole or part, during which documents, information or tasks are passed from one participant (human or machine) to another for action, according to a set of procedural rules. Workflow automation adds the capability to interpret information contained within the documents rather than just storing them. The solution is best applied in situations where information is derived from a variety of sources and there exists a well-established, multi-stage processing environment.

Forms Processing deals with volumes of paper-based forms for automatic extraction of data, using technologies such as Optical Mark Recognition, Optical Character Recognition, Intelligent Character Recognition, Barcode Recognition, etc.

These solutions find application in several business areas like banking, financial institutions, telecom, educational institutions, hospitals, manufacturing, insurance, customer care, and government.

The Future

Today, we are in the middle of a revolution sparked by rapid progress in imaging and computer technology. But contrary to common belief, computers are not as fast as humans in computations related to the analysis or processing of images. Biological or human vision is still by far the most powerful and versatile perceptual mechanism. Scientist Mead notes that “the visual system of a single human being does more image processing than the entire world’s supply of supercomputers.” However, some tasks such as image compression, enhancement and data extraction from paper via technologies such as OMR, OCR and ICR, etc, can now be performed on desktop computers available today.

With increasing power and sophistication of modern computing, the concept of computation can go beyond the traditional, sequential Von Neumann architecture and one could even contemplate optical implementations. A major challenge for automatic image analysis is that the sheer complexity of the visual task has been mostly ignored by the current approaches. We (humans) compute, but not necessarily the way most of the present day computer systems do. After all, nature did not know anything about bits and Boolean algebra when vision was created!

It should be noted that the present computer methods, by contrast, could provide answers only to precisely stated questions that are not ill-defined. But a ray of hope surely comes from the distributed and parallel computing paradigms that are expected to boost real-time response for many image processing solutions. Image processing technology is waiting to address many unanswered questions. There is every reason to believe that once this technology achieves a level of competence that even modestly approaches that of human vision, and at a competitive cost, the imaging applications will virtually explode.

Hareish Gur is group head & DGM at Newgen Software Technologies. He can be contacted at hareish@newgen.co.in

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