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A prolific inventor

Polish software engineer Marta Karczewicz, who has been shortlisted for the European Inventor Award 2019, talks to Neil Tyler about her work and contribution to the development of video compression.

Dr Marta Karczewicz, a software engineer, was recently announced as a finalist in this year’s European Inventor Award 2019 in the category “Lifetime achievement” for her work in video compression.

Described by EPO President António Campinos as a “prolific inventor” she is Vice President of Technology at Qualcomm Technologies, who she joined in 2006 after working with Nokia. She has been responsible for over 400 patents and inventions which have enabled the compression of video files transforming, in the process, the entertainment industry as well as broadening the availability of video streaming to millions of users around the world. Her work has contributed to the development of virtual and augmented reality on mobile devices and to virtual conferencing, in fact her inventions can be said to have had an impact on billions of users around the world.

At Qualcomm, she remains at the forefront of new developments and has been heavily involved in creating new technical standards through her work with standards bodies. Her team has been involved in driving the development of the latest form of video codec – the Versatile Video Coding (VVC) standard – which is due to come into effect in 2020.

It’s fair to say that every time a video is streamed, you are more than likely using a standard she has helped to shape.

Born in Poland, Karczewicz soon showed a passion for mathematics and at the Mathematical Olympiad in Poland finished among the top ten, which not only secured her a place at university but helped her obtain a grant from Nokia to study at Tampere University in Finland. There she focused on signal and image processing and, as a result, developed an interest in data and then video compression.

“I was drawn to mathematics as l loved solving difficult problems,” she explained, “and I really wasn’t very good at anything else. The Olympiad gave me the opportunity to go to university and with the fall of the Berlin Wall the chance to go to Finland and see the wider world, it was too good an opportunity not to take up.

“Tampere enabled you to create, in effect, your own course so I decided to focus on image processing, statistics and modelling which enabled me to work on some really interesting and challenging projects for Nokia. I focused on video compression, as it was new areas of research. I could see great opportunities going forward.”

It was while she was at Tampere, and while working for Nokia, that she completed her Masters and then her PhD.

“I’m certainly a driven person and I like to solve problems and, crucially, I don’t give up easily. I’m certainly competitive and will always be looking at how we can improve and do things better.”

That determination, over the past 20 years, has seen Karczewicz invent technology which enables video to be compressed by a factor of 1,000 without losing perceivable image quality, and she was heavily involved in developing some of the key components of the Advanced Video Coding (AVC) video standard, a standard which she also helped to shape.

She was also involved in the development of High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), an AVC successor, which has enabled much faster streaming on mobile devices.

One of Karczewicz’s most important patents was for a deblocking filter, that’s used in set-top boxes to examine pixels within blocks and then smooth out sharp variations, ensuring good image quality as well as reducing the file size.

Engaging with standards bodies

Karczewicz worked with Nokia until 2006 when she then decided to move to San Diego to work with Qualcomm.

“Nokia had been extremely supportive and it was a wonderful environment in which to work,” she remembers. “As a company it was very supportive of my work - it was more like a research institute. I liked the atmosphere and the work and the company was doing exceptionally well. I could carry out research into areas of interest and the funding was available to support my work.

“It was while I was with Nokia that I first got involved with standards. Meetings then were more like research conferences and although they are much bigger today, I still enjoy their collaborative nature even if the atmosphere is more competitive than in the past.”

Without this open exchange in standards bodies, Karczewicz believes that data compression would never have met the demands of video streaming so soon. “Codecs require big teams. A single company would have struggled on its own and its quality would have suffered from the lack of competition and the exchange of information,” she suggests.

Her decision to move to Qualcomm came after several years living and working in the US for Nokia, where she had been heading the company’s research centre in Dallas.

“Nokia was having problems and encountering increased commercial headwinds. My perception was that its focus was shifting to the network and was moving away from the mobile space, so I decided to look for another place to continue my work and that’s when I joined Qualcomm.

“Qualcomm has provided me with the perfect environment in which to work,” says Karczewicz. “It understands the value of long term research and appreciates that results don’t happen overnight. It takes time and investment.”

Karczewicz’s inventions at Qualcomm have given consumers 8K x 4K video resolutions at 120 frames per second, allowing users to stream video and use virtual and augmented reality applications on their mobile devices. Not only that, her work has enabled significant advancements in telemedicine with the use of teleconference technology.

“As a woman, in a predominantly male world, I’ve never come up against prejudice or been held back,” she says. “I’ve been promoted quickly and I believe that reflects the value placed on the work I do. Despite that 90 percent of my teams – both at Nokia and now at Qualcomm – remain men.

“Today, too many women don’t consider engineering to be a career. Interestingly, that certainly wasn’t the case in Poland when I went through the education process. Women were much better represented.

“Qualcomm has been really encouraging for me and I believe that we need to do far more in talking up the value of engineering as a career path for women.

“Discrimination happens, but don’t bad things happen everywhere? Companies certainly need to be more encouraging of women and corporate leadership need to start to recognise their value and encourage their entrepreneurship and innovation.”

•The winners of the 2019 edition of the EPO’s annual innovation prize will be announced at a ceremony in Vienna on 20 June.

Marta Karczewicz

Born in Poland, Karczewicz studied signal and image processing at Tampere University in Finland.

She joined Nokia where she conducted research into data and then video compression and ended up running its research centre in Dallas. Today, she is Vice President of technology at Qualcomm Technologies.

Over the past 20 years she has been responsible for 400 patents and inventions.

Author
Neil Tyler

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