Images are signals with special characteristics. First, they are a measure of a parameter over space (distance), while most signals are a measure of a parameter over time. Second, they contain a great deal of information. For example, more than 10 megabytes can be required to store one second of television video. This is more than a thousand times greater than for a similar length voice signal. Third, the final judge of quality is often a subjective human evaluation, rather than an objective criteria. These special characteristics have made image processing a distinct subgroup within DSP.
In 1895, Wilhelm Conrad R?ntgen discovered that x-rays could pass through substantial amounts of matter. Medicine was revolutionized by the ability to look inside the living human body. Medical x-ray systems spread throughout the world in only a few years. In spite of its obvious success, medical x-ray imaging was limited by four problems until DSP and related techniques came along in the 1970s. First, overlapping structures in the body can hide behind each other. For example, portions of the heart might not be visible behind the ribs. Second, it is not always possible to distinguish between similar tissues. For example, it may be able to separate bone from soft tissue, but not distinguish a tumor from the liver. Third, x-ray images show anatomy, the body's structure, and not physiology, the body's operation. The x-ray image of a living person looks exactly like the x-ray image of a dead one! Forth, x-ray exposure can cause cancer, requiring it to be used sparingly and only with proper justification.
The problem of overlapping structures was solved in 1971 with the introduction of the first computed tomography scanner (formerly called computed axial tomography, or CAT scanner). Computed tomography (CT) is a classic example of Digital Signal Processing. X-rays from many directions are passed through the section of the patient's body being examined. Instead of simply forming images with the detected x-rays, the signals are converted into digital data and stored in a computer. The information is then used to calculate images that appear to be slices through the body. These images show much greater detail than conventional techniques, allowing significantly better diagnosis and treatment. The impact of CT was nearly as large as the original introduction of x-ray imaging itself. Within only a few years, every major hospital in the world had access to a CT scanner. In 1979, two of CT's principle contributors, Godfrey N. Hounsfield and Allan M. Cormack, shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine. That's good DSP!
The last three x-ray problems have been solved by using penetrating energy other than x-rays, such as radio and sound waves. DSP plays a key role in all these techniques. For example, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) uses magnetic fields in conjunction with radio waves to probe the interior of the human body. Properly adjusting the strength and frequency of the fields cause the atomic nuclei in a localized region of the body to resonate between quantum energy states. This resonance results in the emission of a secondary radio wave, detected with an antenna placed near the body. The strength and other characteristics of this detected signal provide information about the localized region in resonance. Adjustment of the magnetic field allows the resonance region to be scanned throughout the body, mapping the internal structure. This information is usually presented as images, just as in computed tomography. Besides providing excellent discrimination between different types of soft tissue, MRI can provide information about physiology, such as blood flow through arteries. MRI relies totally on Digital Signal Processing techniques, and could not be implemented without them.
Sometimes, you just have to make the most out of a bad picture. This is frequently the case with images taken from unmanned satellites and space exploration vehicles. No one is going to send a repairman to Mars just to tweak the knobs on a camera! DSP can improve the quality of images taken under extremely unfavorable conditions in several ways: brightness and contrast adjustment, edge detection, noise reduction, focus adjustment, motion blur reduction, etc. Images that have spatial distortion, such as encountered when a flat image is taken of a spherical planet, can also be warped into a correct representation. Many individual images can also be combined into a single database, allowing the information to be displayed in unique ways. For example, a video sequence simulating an aerial flight over the surface of a distant planet.
Commercial Imaging Products
The large information content in images is a problem for systems sold in mass quantity to the general public. Commercial systems must be cheap, and this doesn't mesh well with large memories and high data transfer rates. One answer to this dilemma is image compression. Just as with voice signals, images contain a tremendous amount of redundant information, and can be run through algorithms that reduce the number of bits needed to represent them. Television and other moving pictures are especially suitable for compression, since most of the image remain the same from frame-to-frame. Commercial imaging products that take advantage of this technology include: video telephones, computer programs that display moving pictures, and digital television.