UW engineers devise high-speed image processor

University of Washington engineers have invented an image-processing system that may be the world’s sharpest, fastest and least expensive, the UW announced last March.

The system’s immediate application is in medicine. For the first time, a physician will be able to chart the progress of, for instance, a brain disorder with CAT scans or magnetic resonance images taken successively over several hours, comparing changes in side-by-side, “true color” images on the computer screen.

What is more, the invention may prove a powerful tool in desktop publishing, computer-aided design and manufacturing, scientific computing and other fields requiring enormous databases to store images, said Electrical Engineering Professor Yongmin Kim, who led the research. Graduate students Karl Mills and Gilman Wong are co-inventors.

The device, which consists of a single circuit board for the NeXT computer, has been licensed non­exclusively to Daewoo Telecom Co. of Korea, a supporter of the research. Leading Edge Products Inc. will market the system in the United States for parent company Daewoo.

The powerful processor can produce so-called “true-color” images—several million colors compared to the 256 limit of most computers, Kim said. It executes incredibly complex functions with a speed approximating that of a supercomputer—which can cost millions of dollars—but will cost about half as much to manufacture as other image-processing systems, which sell from $65,000 to $300,000 depending on the application.

“Professor Kim’s system is phenomenal,” says Alan Rowberg, assistant professor of radiology working with the processor at the UW Medical Center. “When I describe its capabilities to my colleagues, their jaws drop.”

Armed with the new UW technol­ogy, radiologists can pull three-dimensional, color X-rays, which they can easily manipulate to examine all sides. New X-rays can be popped onto the screen in a second, and up to 16 images can be called up at once with the push of two buttons.

The UW’s Office of Technology Transfer is working with other companies interested in marketing the system. “We believe that Kim’s work is at the leading edge in this area of medical technology,” says Marc Heritage, a Seattle-based senior scientist with IBM, one of the interested companies.

Though radiology is the “most obvious and most critical application,” Heritage says, “there are many areas of industry where we move pictures around. Utility companies, for example, create huge databases of images. … The same is true for an aircraft company like Boeing. To design an aircraft, you need zillions of drawings.”