Susie Wee: Picture Perfect Digital Images

One of 40 under 40 to watch

7 March 2008
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The next time you send pictures from your digital camera to your friends, download a movie on your computer, or watch a TV program in high definition, you can thank Susie J. Wee. This IEEE member had a hand in making those technologies possible, and she did all of it before she turned 35. That’s why Computerworld magazine put her on its 2007 “40 Under 40” list of  IT innovators—which honors 40 rising stars younger than 40. Wee is now 38. The magazine says her work in imaging has made her one of the “people to watch” in coming years. Her research has been published in 50 journals, and she holds 25 patents, with more than 25 pending. She’s also the associate editor of IEEE Transactions on Circuits and Systems for Video Technology.

Wee has been developing ways to compress video images and send them over computer networks since her grad-school days at MIT, where she researched signal processing and image processing. She spent 10 years at the school, earning her bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering in 1990, 1991, and 1996, respectively. While still a grad student, Wee was part of the university’s development team working on the HDTV system.

She joined Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto, Calif., as a researcher in 1996 and worked on ways to send compressed video over computer networks so the images could be shared and viewed on various devices.

“It was an analog world in 1996, when VCR tapes were still popular and DVDs were just starting to be used,” she says. “Industry didn’t realize that everything was going to be digitized, so it was an analog-versus-digital battle.” But at HP, Wee and her colleagues believed that digital compression would soon be easy to accomplish “because computers were going to be able to compress and decompress images.”

To make that possible, Wee helped develop compressed domain processing algorithms, which take compressed digital video streams and process them into another compressed stream that can then be sent wirelessly or over broadband. That work led to HP’s OpenCall Media Platform, a commercial video streaming approach for mobile networks that allows videos to be edited, viewed on different-sized screens, and accessed by mobile devices such as cellphones and PDAs.

Wee, who was promoted to a management position in 2000, has kept her hand in research. “I wanted to innovate on my own, just to keep the technical side of my brain going, but on something that wouldn’t interfere with the work of the researchers who reported to me,” she says.

That next innovation ended up as the standard for the security of JPEG 2000 images, known as JPSEC. Wee was the standard’s coeditor, which is what she is best known for. The scalable image–coding standard, finalized in April, keeps JPEGs secure and compressed as they travel around a network.

“People thought it was impossible to transcode media while keeping it secure so that the content creator could encrypt it and decrypt it as it goes around the network,” she says. “The size couldn’t be changed unless the owner gave the network operator the encryption key, but that’s not secure in an end-to-end way, because someone could steal the content.”

So she and IEEE Fellow John Apostolopoulos developed scalable coding that uses different encryption keys for high-, medium-, and low-resolution images. The scalability changes the images for different devices and different networks but preserves security.

Wee continued to climb the management ladder, becoming director of HP Labs Mobile and Media Systems in 2005. Her group is working on a line of products to improve a user’s experience with video. They include the Halo high-end video conferencing system and Conversa, which integrates video from mobile devices with video on the Internet.

What drives this young innovator? Making a contribution and having an impact on the technical community and society, she says.

“It’s one thing to write papers, but it’s another thing to make sure your inventions have impact,” she says. “It’s also important to get more people connected and able to communicate with each other around the world. And not just for those who already have computers but for people who are not so connected.”

ICE HOCKEY, TOO Wee, born in Batavia, N.Y., finds time to have fun. She has been playing ice hockey since her days at MIT, where she was on the women’s varsity team. Nowadays, she gets out on the ice three nights a week at a local rink, in an adult recreational league and as a member of the Fog City Sirens women’s team, which plays in regional and national competitions.

What do ice hockey and invention have in common? It’s all about working with others toward a common goal, Wee explains. “Teamwork is very important to me, and that’s what I like about this sport,” she says. “It’s a dynamic, fast-paced game where you depend on others to win.”

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