Lauren Christopher: Hall of Famer

IEEE member is honored for her work with DirecTV's digital satellite receiver system

7 April 2011

IEEE Member Lauren Christopher jokes that she should now include the initials "HOF" after her name, the way athletes who enter their sport's hall of fame are identified in reference books.

But Christopher isn't an athlete. Her "HOF" doesn't come from the National Football League or the National Basketball Association. She's an engineer, and she was recently inducted into the Consumer Electronics Association Hall of Fame for her contributions to industry. The award, which was given to her in October at a ceremony in San Francisco, recognizes her work in the 1990s at Thomson Inc. managing the team of engineers in Indianapolis that developed the digital satellite receiver system for DirecTV. Past inductees include Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, and Steve Sasson, inventor of the digital camera.

"Receiving the award is a huge honor," says Christopher, now an assistant professor at the Purdue School of Engineering and Technology at Indiana University-Purdue University (IUPUI), in Indianapolis. "The award also recognizes all of the great engineers on the team."

Working at Thomson, Christopher managed a group of 30 software, hardware, and manufacturing engineers who created the digital set-top box that allows TV sets to receive and display programs transmitted by satellite. The project began in 1991. DirecTV launched in 1994.

"There was no complete MPEG standard at the time," Christopher says, referring to the standard for audio and video compression. "We had to come up with a system layer that would allow us to put audio and video together."

Although digital satellite transmission existed before DirecTV, different channels had been employed for audio and video. "A transponder would have multiple submodulations," she says. "We ended up doing a full transponder load with a single modulation, which gave us an advantage in terms of maximum bit rate per transponder, thereby enabling more TV programs."

"The chips at the time were just getting to the point where you could run fast enough. The chips and the architecture choices for modulation were new in terms of digital communications, and MPEG was new in terms of digital compression. It was really amazing."

Christopher says her team's DirecTV work succeeded because it was tested so thoroughly before its launch. "The engineers went through the whole system and software and stress-tested it all," she says, "so we knew we had a really solid product." The set-top boxes worked so well that it was nearly two years before Thomson released any software patches, and even those were minor, she says.

Digital compression and digital transmission both took off after DirecTV showed they were possible, she notes, adding, "The next project I worked on at Thomson was DVD, which was another new product category."

AN EARLY FASCINATION
Christopher grew up in Weedsport, N.Y., where she developed a fondness for math and science in high school. She went on to attend MIT and study electrical engineering with a specialization in signal processing and chip design.

She received her bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering from MIT in 1982. While studying for her master's, she worked summer and fall terms at an RCA co-op program in Princeton, N.J.—which helped set her career course in video technology. After graduation, she took a job at RCA. She was mentored, while working on digital chips, by some of the pioneers in analog television. "The analog engineers were very supportive of us young 'digital' people," she says.

Thomson bought the RCA Consumer Electronics Division in 1987. Christopher stayed with the new company, and in 1990 Thomson sent her to Indianapolis to work on the DirecTV project.

She managed the engineering team developing first- and second- generation DirecTV set-top boxes until 1996. She also handled project scheduling across hardware, software, and mechanical engineering. In another role, she served as system engineer for the set-top box.

After the set-top box projects, she joined the international team that helped develop the first Thomson DVD player, which used some of the same chips developed for the DirecTV box. During the next four years, she worked on two iterations of DVD technology.

While still at Thompson, she earned her Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Purdue University in 2003, studying medical image segmentation algorithms. Thomson closed its Indianapolis research group in 2005, but she continued with the company in Indianapolis in product development until 2008.

A SECOND CAREER
Christopher made the transition to academia by joining IUPUI as an assistant professor soon after. Today she teaches courses on signals and systems, circuits, and digital systems design.

"In this, my second career, I wanted to be a mentor to younger people, mirroring the experience I had in my early days at RCA and Thompson," she says.

University life offers her a chance to look at her work from a different perspective. "Thompson was so focused," she says. "Now I see such a variety in the work around me. The professors all pursue different applications and passions. The students have ideas in all kinds of different areas. They often come back to school after years of work. It's really interesting."

In addition to teaching, Christopher is also back in research. In 2009 she set up a laboratory concentrating on image processing for 3-D television that wouldn't require wearing special glasses. In addition to the technology's obvious entertainment applications, she is concentrating on medical imaging, developing algorithms that would improve computer-aided diagnosis. "If you're looking at breast cancer, for example, it's hard to differentiate normal tissue from tumors," she says. "We're looking at ways to pull out bones, tissue structures, and tumors and display them in 3-D." She is teaching a new course on 3-D image processing this spring.

She also spends time volunteering for IEEE, including acting as a reviewer for IEEE Transactions on Consumer Electronics. She has been an IEEE member since 1981, when she joined as a student member.

"IEEE has absolutely been critical in my career," she says.

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