Press release | 21.4.2015
Munich/Rotterdam, 21 April 2015 - His task was to find a way to store large quantities of data on a small disc. When he did, it launched a digital revolution. Kornelis "Kees" Schouhamer Immink is regarded as the father of the CD, DVD, and Blu-ray Disc, for which he developed the coding standard that applies to this day. Rarely has an invention had such an enduring effect on our daily lives as the CD and its successors. A technological leap of quantum proportions, the switch from the record to the CD not only enabled the storage of substantially larger quantities of data on smaller devices, but also opened up a whole new world in terms of sound quality, storage life, and ease of use. Immink left an indelible mark on three generations of compact discs, from the first CD in 1982 to the Blu-ray Disc in 2006. Over 1 000 patents in this field can be attributed to the 68-year-old inventor from Rotterdam. For these accomplishments, the European Patent Office (EPO) has now nominated him as a finalist for the 2015 European Inventor Award in the Lifetime Achievement category. The winners of the 10th edition of the annual innovation award will be announced at a ceremony held in Paris on 11 June.
"The development of the data coding process for CD, DVD, and Blu-ray is a milestone on the road to digitalisation," said EPO President Benoît Battistelli announcing the finalists for this year's award. "Very few inventions have conquered both industry and private households in a similar manner. With his technique, Immink has made a lasting impact on how we handle data and has helped us ring in the digital era."
After completing his studies in electronic engineering at Rotterdam Polytechnic, Kornelis Schouhamer Immink began his career in 1967 in the research department at engineering giant Philips, which was already enjoying an excellent reputation. At the time, Philips had been experimenting with new laser disc technology that had been patented in 1966 by the American inventor James T. Russel. Its first commercial application in the form of a record-sized video disc proved to be a flop. In 1974, Immink worked with his team to transfer the same principle to a smaller digital alternative to the record. Their biggest challenge was the coding process. The new technology they developed replaced the stylus on conventional record players with a laser. The result: instead of a needle that "tracked" the grooves of the vinyl disc, the laser could read the binary code from the CD surface without touching it, by distinguishing between miniscule elevations and the smooth surface - expressed as binary zeros and ones. Nevertheless, this form of encoding was difficult to read at the time and highly susceptible to dust, fingerprints, and scratches on the surface.
Immink solved all of these problems by developing a new data coding system: Eight-to-Fourteen Modulation, or EFM. EFM translates eight-bit blocks into a 14-bit pattern. The technique breaks down the binary code into shorter blocks that can be read more easily and accurately. In addition, Immink integrated a control component (digital sum value) to ensure that the scanner is always able to detect its own exact position on the medium. This ensures reliable playback and the listener can jump between different song titles on the CD - an option that was not possible with the record or the cassette tape. Encoding for the DVD and Blu-ray Disc is based on the same principle. "The CD code translates the audio signal into electrical signals in a digital domain that can be easily stored on a plastic disc. The translation of this audio signal is just like the translation between two languages," says the inventor about the process. Immink expanded his method in subsequent years to EFMPlus, which plays audio and video in an even higher quality. The Dutch inventor also played a large role in the development of the third compact disc generation, the Blu-ray Disc. The main advancement in this case is the use of a more concentrated blue laser that can read more compactly-spaced data on the disc surface, which in turn improves quality and storage capacity. Immink was also among the first to recognise the potential of CDs and DVDs as a storage media for other data beyond music and film: in 1984, he was already working on the rewritable CD. In the 1990s, CDs and DVDs ultimately became the most important data media for both private and commercial use.
Philips was not alone in its efforts. Japanese electronics company Sony was also working on the new technology. In 1979, the two competitors decided to develop a new standard for compact discs in a joint project. Immink was part of the development team and he managed to defend his EFM system against competing ideas and come out on top. Many attribute the myth that the CD holds 74 minutes of music to this period, since a recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony directed by Wilhelm Furtwängler had this exact length - and happened to be the favourite piece of the wife of Sony's president at the time. Immink himself has a more pragmatic explanation for the 74 minutes: because Philips had a factory in Hanover that could manufacture CDs to hold 60 minutes of music, Sony simply wanted to raise the stakes.
When the CD was released on the market in 1982, Immink never fathomed the commercial success that his invention would have. As prices for CD players dropped and the popular music industry discovered the medium, sales figures skyrocketed. In 1985, "Brothers in Arms" by the British rock band Dire Straits was the first album to break the one-million-mark in sales. Hundreds of billions of CDs have crossed sales counters since, peaking in 2000 with around 2.45 billion copies . Although sales have declined since 2008, CDs still generated revenues of EUR 4.7 billion in 2012. Based on the CD's success, the next logical step in the digitalisation process was to take the VHS cassette and transform it into the DVD. As the DVD finally became the standard in the film industry in 1995, raking in billions in sales, Immink had already shifted his focus to the third generation of his invention: the Blu-ray Disc. Despite the large amount of videos available online, Blu-ray Discs still generated revenues of EUR 20 billion in 2013.
When the Blu-ray Disc's success materialised, Immink left Philips and founded his own company, Turing Machines Inc., in 1998. Immink has been distinguished with numerous awards for his work, amongst others with the 1999 IEEE Edison Medal. Beatrix, Queen of the Netherlands, bestowed on him a knighthood in the Order of Oranje Nassau in 2000. Even the US film industry has paid its respects to the Dutch inventor: in 2003, he was awarded an Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS) in New York.
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