Canon’s Larry Thorpe Has Personally Changed the Way We View
Name: Larry Thorpe
Title: Senior Fellow, Professional Engineering & Solutions Division
Company: Canon U.S.A.
Overtime: Prior to Canon, Larry worked for Sony, RCA, and the BBC. He was instrumental in developing international HDTV standards.
SCN: At what age did you first develop an interest in technology?
Larry Thorpe: An interest in electronic technology was born in my early teens. My father was the chief radar engineer at Dublin Airport and he imbued me with a love of electronics. I tinkered a great deal and always knew that electronic engineering would be my college quest.
SCN: You received your masters in engineering in the 1960s. What made you choose broadcast as the first step in your career?
LT: During my final year at college I went to England a number of times to interview with various electronic organizations seeking a future engineering position. One of these was a London interview with the BBC that caught my attention—especially when they said I would have to start with a three-month intensive television engineering course at a lovely old manor in the Cotswold’s (which I did). There was a magic aura in the BBC back then and the combination of television engineering combined with program origination fired my imagination. It sparked a life-long preoccupation with all aspects of imaging technologies.
SCN: You played a large role in the HDTV standardization process. When you began that process, what was the end result in mind? How different is HD today than when you initially envisioned it?
LT: The initial work was on an HDTV Production Standard—to hopefully unite the world on a single such standard. We passionately believed in a video format that would expedite international HDTV program exchange. This work was done within SMPTE, ATSC, and ITU working groups and spanned more than a decade. Ultimately, the 1920 x 1080 standard did become the world standard, albeit it at different frame rates in different regions of the globe.
That endeavor was followed by the ATSC/FCC quest for a broadcast HDTV transmission standard—which finally emerged as an all-digital standard in 1996. One end result I did not anticipate was the toll of HD standardization work—I went in with red beard and reddish hair and emerged fifteen years later with white hair and beard.
The early HDTV production equipment was crude by today’s standards. There were no solid-state imagers, and no digital processing— all was analog. Yet we were hugely stirred by the promise of the imagery and this did propel accelerating developments. The HDTV that can be originated today is stunningly superior to those early endeavors. With the advent of the CCD imager in 1992 (and later the CMOS) and then digital recording—the image quality of HDTV origination has advanced in leaps and bounds.
What we did not envision during all this work was the emergence of heavy-handed digital compression by some delivery services to squeeze more channels and thus deprive the home viewer of the superb image quality that can be originated today in HDTV.
SCN: Obviously displays have undergone massive changes in the last 50 years. What about their evolution has surprised you the most?
LT: I was stunned by the speed with which their costs dropped. In the early 1990s I chaired a working group in the Advanced FCC Advisory Committee (ACATS) on Economic Modeling of future HDTV receivers. We had a wide collection of talent from numerous disciplines and we ultimately modeled a best and worst scenario. In retrospect, our findings could not have been more wrong. Nor did we foresee the emergence of disparate HD display technologies, and we most assuredly never envisaged the astonishing number of global display manufacturers that we saw at the CES show of two months ago. The world has never seen such a combination of powerful drivers in display technologies.
SCN: What is Canon working on to continue the advancement of camera and display technology?
LT: We have very significant ongoing in-house developments to the core technologies of optics, CMOS image sensors, digital video processors, codecs, and display technologies including the allied printer technologies.
Within Canon we see ourselves as an “input-output” manufacturer — specializing in many forms of image capture equipment (inputs) and also the many means of portraying those images (outputs). Now that we have entered high-end cinematography you can expect far-reaching developments in both image origination and image display in the decades ahead. We recognize the complex disparity in television and movie genres, and accordingly, we are developing an ever-broadening range of image acquisition systems for motion imaging and for still imaging—supporting that diversity with a widening range of both small and large image sensors. And, underlying all those developments we have a huge central research organization dedicated to color science and color management that is central to all we do in image origination, workflow, and ultimate image portrayal on many devices and displays.
SCN: After such a long career in the visual world, what are your predictions for the future?
LT: The thirst of humankind for vivid imagery will continue to inexorably propel enormous development strategies and projects related to content creation and portrayal.
If I might end on a note of my personal dream for the future of imaging, it would be that content creators come to understand that large-screen 4K displays (and higher) present a totally new canvas that cries for new “paintings.” By this I mean, the far better deployment of those huge display pixel numbers to reproduce more wide-angle images that are reflective of how we see the real world, and not waste those pixels attempting to further sharpen the imagery we presently originate. Lenses need to open their field of view, overuse of closeups should reduce, and manic editing should give some way to more lingering shots. The “greater sensation of reality” can finally be brought to the living room, but only if the creative community come to first understand the significance of 4K (and above), and then evolve to a new choreography in content creation.
Chuck Ansbacher is the managing editor of SCN.