Kornelis A. Schouhamer Immink

Coding method for CD, DVD and Blu-ray

Lifetime Achievement
Technical field
Computer technology
Kornelis Schouhamer Immink’s inventions jump-started a digital revolution. The 68-year-old has fathered three very successful generations, from the birth of the CD in 1982 and the DVD in 1995 to the first Blu-ray disc in 2006. Now he is named on more than a thousand patents worldwide.

Finalist for the European Inventor Award 2015

In 1974, Immink and his team at Philips were tasked to come up with a digital alternative to vinyl records. But going from analogue to digital was not an easy process; the grooves and needle of the record were replaced by a laser that reads binary code of the CD surface without touching it. During the inventive process, Immink came up with an ingenious coding system, called Eight-to-Fourteen Modulation (EFM), turning the long grooves into short pits (zeroes) and lands (ones).

Over the following years, Immink went on to develop the coding technology for both the DVD and the Blu-ray, finding new ways to create more storage space on the flat discs.

Societal benefit

Three decades after the launch of the first commercial CD, it is easy to overlook the effects that CDs, DVDs and later Blu-ray discs had on the music, entertainment and computer industries.

In the mid-1980s CDs were the first portable format for high-quality digital recordings. Their unrivalled popularity was evidenced in unit sales that quickly soared in the 1990s, far outstripping earlier cassette and vinyl record sales.

CD-ROMs also revolutionized computing. At the time of the first CD-ROM they offered significantly more storage space than the average computer hard drive. Suddenly a world of encyclopaedias, maps, pictures and even video files was available to users.

Economic benefit

Since 1982, billions of CDs have been sold, peaking in 2004 with around 30 billion recorded and recordable discs selling that year. And though sales have been on the decline since 2008, the global revenue in 2012 was still € 4.7 billion.

The DVD became the industry standard and fastest-adopted electronic consumer product, generating billions for the film industry – while Immink was already working on the third generation of his invention, the Blu-ray. But this time around, using the new, blue laser was still far too costly for commercial use. That’s why Blu-ray technology first hit the market in 2006 – with sales reaching to almost € 20 billion in 2013.

How it works

Immink came up with a coding system called Eight-to-Fourteen Modulation (EFM). Instead of reading a CD like a vinyl disc with a long series of grooves, this code compartmentalises a sequence of zeroes and ones into short pits and lands – which at the same time solves three problems: it increases run time, creates a high tolerance for anomalies such as dust or fingerprints, and allows skipping to a specific song.

For the DVD, Immink invented a new code to contain high-quality audio and video, which he called EFM Plus. Essentially this code operates on the same principles as the EFM, but it creates more space for high-quality data on a disc by reorganising the strings.

Because Blu-ray technology uses a different, more concentrated laser, the strings of ones and zeroes can be rearranged in a more concentrated way, too – which leaves more space for high-definition quality.

The inventor

Immink graduated from Rotterdam Polytechnic with a degree in electronic engineering and soon afterward began a career at Philips that lasted for over 30 years. In 1998, he founded his own company Turing Machines Inc., and sold a new version of his code to LG in 2001 – for a one-off fee equal to 95 times his annual salary at Philips. He was awarded the IEEE Edison Medal in 1999, Dutch Knighthood in 2000, and even an Emmy award for his technical engineering contribution in 2003.

Immink lives and works in Rotterdam. He has a house near the Rhine, where he often goes rowing with friends.

Did you know?

Although major record labels were originally sceptical about adopting the CD as a standard format for music recording, they quickly warmed to the technology as they realized the potential it offered. The first pop music album pressed onto a CD was ABBA’s The Visitors in 1981. Within two years there were more than 1000 titles available. By the late 1990s, the CD helped usher in the golden age of the music recording industry. Total recorded music sales (including CDs, vinyl albums and cassettes) peaked in 1999 with adjusted global sales that were 12% higher than during the heyday of vinyl recording 20 years early.

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