How an erotic Playboy poster helped create JPEGs and inadvertently became a tech icon

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the of Lena Sjööblom It’s one of the craziest races in the history of technology. First of all, because when she left her mark in the sector she was not an engineer, or a mathematician, or a physicist, or anything that looked the least bit like it. She, too, had no known “Eureka” moment nor did she make any discovery or invention. No. Sjööblom was a model. She went from modeling to what was then known as a “Playboy girl.” And from the pages of the nude magazine she jumped to the frontline research that today, half a century later, allows us to enjoy the jpeg image format.

Let’s go by parts.

In the early 1970s, Sjööblom, a 21-year-old Swedish immigrant recently landed in the US, she made a living as a model. To make her way and probably without the slightest idea of ​​the route that her image would end up having, at the end of 1972 she agreed to pose nude for Playboy, a magazine that at that time sold millions of copies around the world. In one of the central photos that she took of him Dwight Hookerone of the most famous portraitists of the header, appears from behind, before a mirror, with no other clothes than a hat, a red boa, stockings and heels.

His work liked. A lot. At least that is what we can deduce if one takes into account that the November 1972 issue, in which Sjööblom was the playmate main and Pamela Rawlings appeared on the cover, sold 7.16 million copies, which makes it the most successful in the entire history of the magazine. The inn became so famous that in 1973 Woody Allen he even sneaked it into one of his movies. As often happens with fame, that sudden public interest came, swept away, and with it, evaporated. Sjööblom continued her modeling career and, now retired, returned to Sweden.

The right place, at the right time

Accidents of life, one of those 7.16 million copies of the 1972 magazine ended up in the hands of a person linked to the Image Signal Processing Institute (SIPI) of the University of South Carolina, a laboratory in which, at the time, they were working on image processing and laying the foundations for what would become the JPEG and MPEG standards. The coincidence would not be of much interest were it not for the fact that that reader took his Playboy SIPI at the right time: just when they were looking for an image for their tests.

Today it may seem crazy to us that someone shows up at the office with a nude magazine under his arm. Not in the 70s. As Lorena Fernández recallsof the University of Deustoon The Conversationit was not only usual for the staff to show up with their Playboy in teams that, like Carolina’s, were made up solely of men. He was even well regarded, just like doing it today with The Times or the guide with the programming of the documentaries of La 2. In this context, the arrival of Sjööblom’s photos was as well received as it was proverbial.

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Around June or July 1973, electrical engineering professor Alexander Swachuk, one of his graduate students, and the manager of SIPI were frantically looking for a photo they could scan and include in one of their presentations on image compression. They had their own stock, of course, but it was legacy files from boring, hackneyed early ’60s television standards. Swachuk’s team I wanted a human face and an image that was also bright to guarantee a good output dynamic range.

And what better option —they thought— than Sjööblom’s face?

Breaking all the rules about property rights and decorum, the researchers made use of the image of Playboy. They kept only the top third of the central magazine poster and placed it under their muirhead scannerequipped with analog-digital converters and a minicomputer Hewlett-Packard 2100. Jamie Hutchinson details that to get a 512×512 pixel section they scanned 5.12 inches from the top of the photo, which in practice showed only Lena Sjööblom’s face, her shoulders and part of her bare back.

The result showed a software error that forced the team to retouch it, but Swachuk’s team was working against the clock and decided to keep the distorted and altered image. The thing is, he liked it. Just as I had liked Sjööblom’s Playboy photo shoot in late ’72.”They asked us for copies and we gave them so they could compare their imaging algorithms with ours on the same test image,” the professor himself recalled some time later.

At SIPI they turned Sjööblom’s portrait into a test image for digital compression and transmission work through Arpanet, the forerunner of the Internet. And that, over time, had an unpredictable result: the image of that model that everyone began to refer to as “Lena” or “Lenna” and whose origin began to blur became the standard they resorted to other researchers who wanted to compress similar files with their algorithms.

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The face of that twenty-year-old Swedish woman, with a hat and a bare back, was replicated in books, conferences, articles, traveled through the “Atapuerca” of the Internet and helped lay the foundations for the JPEG image format. “Many researchers know the Lena image so well that they can easily evaluate any algorithm running on it. For that reason most people in the industry seem to believe that Lena has served as a standard well.” comments Hutchinson. In addition to being a “family image,” the photo combines shadows, highlights, and blurry and sharp areas and details, a mix that makes it “a hard test for an algorithm processing”.

Perhaps the most curious thing about the whole story is that both Playboy like Lena Sjööblom herself, they spent decades without knowing the exorbitant fame —and the important role— of the portrait of the 70s. The first to find out was the magazine, which in 1991 was surprised that a scientific publication, Optical Engineering, had her “miss november 1972” on the cover. Annoying, those responsible turned to the International Society for Optical Engineering (SPI).

Playboy Vintage MagazineNov 1 1972

It took even longer for the model to find out, who —Wired recounts— didn’t know until well into the 1990s that his face had been serving as a “test bed” for researchers around the world for about half a century. At that time, Lena was 45 years old and her last name had changed after she got married. Today she is known as Lena Forsen. Curiously, when she was tracked down, in the 1990s, she was working in Stockholm helping disabled people to work with computers.

Yes indeed, no internet connection.

For decades, with Playboy in low hours and a sensitivity that, fortunately, would make it unthinkable for a researcher to walk around with a magazine of nude women in his laboratory, voices are raised asking for Lena to be retired. What’s more, if in 1991 Optical Engineering took her image to the cover today, directly, there are specialized publications that no longer accept investigations in which the photo of 72 is used. It is no longer just a matter of fighting against the objectification of women; but to erase the signs that isolate them in a field dominated for years by men.

Sjööblom herself, alias Lena or “Lenna” for entire generations of computer scientists, has been clear: “I stopped being a model a long time ago. It’s time that I also I retired from technology“.

Service record is not lacking of course.

Images | Wikipedia and Wolfgangs

the of Lena Sjööblom It’s one of the craziest races in the history of technology. First of all, because when…

the of Lena Sjööblom It’s one of the craziest races in the history of technology. First of all, because when…

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