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How a playboy model made digital imaging what it is today

by on 21/08/2012
 


You may have seen recently the report about how scientists from the Singapore based Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) have been able to print an image just 50 micrometres across, at 100,000 dots per inch which is ten times that of your high end home printer. Which is amazing and interesting but not what intrigues about this story. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-19260550)

It was the image these scientists printed that caught my eye and, having some time to waste, I decided to find out more. I am actually surprised with the lack of details I can find, main sources are some websites from the nineties and of course Wikipedia, but nonetheless I shall share with you what I discovered.

The lady in question is Lena Soderberg a Swedish model who posed for the centrefold in the November 1972 issue of Playboy, shot by photographer Dwight Hooker. This image, commonly named ‘Lenna’, went on to become important part of geek science history.

The story goes that in the summer of 1973 Alexander Sawchuk, an assistant professor of electric engineering  at the USC Signal and Image Processing Institute, was hastily looking for an image to scan for a presentation. He had grown bored of the usual test images and wanted something glossy, human, with a variety of contrasting shades. Then in walks a colleague with a copy of the aforementioned Playboy issue and the centrefold was perfect. Who can blame him? It is a beautiful example of the female form and this girl is striking. The top third of the image was scanned, and used, a move which secured its place in the history of digital imaging.

Following the presentation the image began to be handed out by USC researchers to test compression and encoding algorithms and has been used ever since as a test standard for digital image processing.  I know amazing right? Walking around the office reading a Playboy, kudos to the seventies.

Lena Soderberg the model, often referred to as the first lady of the internet, was completely unaware of the role her centrefold had played in science until she was interviewed in 1988 for a Swedish computer publication, during which she was said to be ‘pleasantly amused’ by what her picture had become.

An image that is so much a part of the history of digital imaging that the Society For Imaging Science and Technology tracked Lena down, with a little help from Playboy, and invited her to attend their 50th annual Conference of the Society for Imaging Science and Technology. Considered a celebrity among the science geeks she spent her time signing autographs and meeting her fans. Interviewed at the conference by Wired she said “They must be so tired of me … looking at the same picture for all these years!”

Just think about this for a second, a photograph was taken to be sold as smut, to be perved over or admired for its beauty, but instead became an essential research tool in the development of digital imaging technology and is still being used nearly forty years later. So really you could go on the say that it is Lena Soderberg who is to blame for all arty shots of peoples meals that continue to flood our Instagram feeds.

For those if you curious to see the full image NSFW: http://www.lenna.org/full/len_full.html and I’ll leave you with this poem written by an anonymous admirer:

 

“0 dear Lena, your beauty is so vast
It is hard sometimes to describe it fast.
I thought the entire world I would impress
If only your portrait I could compress.
Alas! First when I tried to use VQ
I found that your cheeks belong to only you.
Your silky hair contains a thousand lines
Hard to match with sums of discrete cosines.
And for your lips, sensual and tactual
Thirteen Crays found not the proper fractal.
And while these setbacks are all quite severe
I might have fixed them with hacks here or there
But when wavelets took sparkle from your eyes
I said, “Skip this stuff. I’ll just digitize.”

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