We take numerous photos each day with our phones, cameras and other such devices, and almost all of them are encoded in a format called “JPEG”. This is an abbreviation for Joint Photographic Experts Group, which is the name of the committee that created the JPEG standard. This is a very versatile format that lets the device capturing the image select the compression and dimensions easily.
Back in the year 1973, assistant professor of electrical engineering, Alexander Sawchuk at the USC Signal and Image Processing Institute (SIPI) was looking for a photograph to use in his friend’s paper to be presented at a conference. He along with an intern had gone through countless photographs but none of them yielded the desired amount of dynamic range. That’s when a friend walked into the lab with a Playboy magazine and in their desperation, the duo ripped off the top half of the centrefold photo which met all the standards.
And about what happened after that, one writer said, “Lenna became for the engineers’ something like what Rita Hayworth was for US soldiers in the trenches of World War II.”
That was a photograph of Swedish model Lena Söderberg from the 1972 edition of the popular American adult magazine Playboy. Lena (whose name would later be anglicized to Lenna) had starred in the centrefold as Miss November 1972.
This photo from Hugh Hefner’s magazine would go on to become one of the most important pieces of resource for computer engineers in the days that followed up to the creation of multiple digital imaging formats like JPEG and MPEG. The photo and Lenna would come to be known as the ‘First Lady of the Internet‘.
Here’s the original image
The team was working on a Muirhead wirephoto scanner which was retrofitted with analog-to-digital converters of colours red, green, and blue, controlled by a Hewlett Packard 2100 minicomputer. They discarded the more NSFW parts of the photo and used a square patch to produce a 512×512 pixel image that had 100 lines per inch.
The red, green and blue reproduction of the image that was captured that day became the backbone supporting the development of imaging formats using the RGB colour scheme. The photo was mass distributed to researchers all around which Playboy took notice of and there arose an intellectual property dispute. An unofficial settlement was reached in the 1900s, and the image became the holy grail for all researchers.
This photo has helped generations of engineers perfect their compression and colour reproduction rates. This eventually led to the age of the Internet, where the JPEG consists of the largest portion of photo formats in use, even today.
As for Lena Söderberg, she accepted her image as the face of the image processing industry and even appeared at an IS&T 50th-anniversary event in 1997. Hugh Hefner definitely wanted to bring a change in certain aspects of life but he sure didn’t think Playboy would end up having such an impact in the image processing industry.