Thomson Opens Innovation Center

Burbank lab focuses on digital rights management, imaging and workflows


Thomson's technology division recently launched its Innovation Center here, surrounded by production studios, to showcase the company's research and products. CTO Jean-Charles Hourcade insisted it is not a demo center, but a "working tool."

"It's the front end of our organization," he said. "These guys here have a dual mission--we need people locally who can interact with our customers."

Hourcade explained that customers wanted more input into Thomson's product development, something neither the NAB and NCTA events nor company promotion junkets could provide.

"We need more interaction to allow our biggest customers to tweak parameters," he said.

The Innovation Center is the latest in what will be eight working research labs around the world, said Nicholas de Wolff, vice president of communications, SBU Technology, (the eighth will open in Paris later this year). The other six facilities are in Princeton, N.J., Indianapolis, Rennes, France and Beijing, plus Hanover and Villingen, Germany. These entities tackle six prime technology domains: compression, security, networking and communications, storage and recording, imaging, and signal acquisition and processing.

High on Hourcade's radar screen are digital color and picture quality management, content security, workflow tools (storage, computation, bandwidth), and compression (particularly the next generation of integrated circuits for decoders).

Onboard in Burbank, said Hourcade, are experts in video compression, content security, signal processing, production and post-production workflows and metadata, as well as IT techs for bandwidth storage. Teams are also working on 3D stereoscopic vision cinema and film marking.


"To get the right people together at the right time," said Hourcade, "you need a minimum level of infrastructure."

The center's viewing room is equipped with a server that can stream content at various compression and bit rates to compare quality under different parameters. There are also consumer screens that the crew controls with "a very high level of precision" (based on proprietary processing algorithms), to simulate pro and consumer displays that exist today as well as those that will exist in the future, thanks to the company's consumer division and technical partners, Hourcade said.

This setup was used, among other instances, to demonstrate Thomson's work on the Moving Pictures Experts Group's Scalable Video Coding standard. MPEG SVC would outline the recommended way to generate a bitstream hierarchically to optimize bandwidth. The successive layers of the hierarchy would correspond to image quality, frame rate and picture size.

A white paper written by members of Thomson's Corporate Research R&D Video Compression Lab compared MPEG SVC to non-scalable technologies like MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 AVC, which require encoding and delivery at different bit rates, plus transrating, to cope with the bandwidth requirements for various content. They concluded that SVC was more seamless and less costly because it enabled the encoding process to be decoupled from the streaming, thereby saving storage space (thus bandwidth) and facilitating management.


Thomson's Digital Presentation Suite (demo room) features various interactive screens that can be accessed via hand held devices.

"We architected the space so that we can have workshops around different demonstrations," said Hourcade.

For example, one can call up a forensic watermarking demonstration originally made for a November 2005 private industry viewing. The process embeds a virtual barcode in visible images on each frame without distorting the images. The barcode would include a theater projection server's identifier, plus time and date stamps.

"We're in the business of mitigating piracy--making it as difficult as possible for a person to commit piracy," said de Wolff.

In addition to the monitoring method described above, the center has a work-in-progress AntiCam solution also targeted at digital cinema pirates. It works on the premise that the camcorder is a sampling device and the human eye is not. As such, it inserts images modulated at high speed (48 Hz or more) into red and green areas, which mars pirated copies with a violation label.

Thomson also has a digital rights management suite called "NexGuard," which blocks, dissuades and identifies "leakages." Targeted at studios, post-production houses and other broadcast markets, NexGuard includes "watermarking, encryption, controlled access and forensic data solutions that manage and secure the storage, transfer and viewing of digital content," according to the company.. The system was slated to debut at NAB 2006.