EBBA was a series of inexpensive image processing systems developed
by Swedish Space Corporation in the period 1980 to 1988. (EBBA was
an acronym for Inexpensive Image Processing Device in Swedish.)
I was involved in its development in a managerial role, but I also
contributed to its software.
EBBA is an interesting subject, not only to those who were directly
involved, but also as part of the history of image processing in
Sweden. In addition, it may offer some insights into the process
of bringing technological innovation to the market.
EBBA had its roots in an "intelligent" image display
memory developed by SSC for the Swedish Coast Guard. Hard as it
may be to believe today, in the late 1970s there was no easy way
to display raster images on a computer. As late as 1976, I visited
a major European research institution and discovered that their
preferred method of generating thematic satellite images was to
print out text symbols on paper, and then color homogeneous areas
(correspondig to water, forest etc.) by hand!
|Well, you get the idea. This was 4 years after Landsat-1
I also remember how thrilled I was, when, at a visit at the Swedish
Defense Research Establishment, a terminal was demonstrated, where
an image was slowly being built up on the screen line by line. This
may seem unreal today, when any PC can process and display an image
from disk (or even the Internet) instantaneously.
The image memory that we had developed for the Coast Guard was
used to display data from an airborne infrared scanner in real time
in the aircraft. We had looked for alternatives but had found nothing
suitable to be available on the market.
In 1979 we took delivery of an Image Analysis System (IAS) from
MDA in Vancouver hosted on a state-of-the-art Interdata 32-bit minicomputer.
(See separate account.)
Its powerful image manipulation possibilities (the "SPIEL"
program) inspired us to think seriously about what might be achieved
using a microprocessor for processing and displaying satellite images.
Our point man in testing and accepting the IAS, Sonny Lundin, wrote
a tentative specification
for a simple EBBA in August 1979.
SSC had a major stake in the success of satellite remote sensing.
We had recently set up a Landsat receiving station in Kiruna and
had acquired the IAS without government support. On our advice,
Sweden had invested in the SPOT satellite system still under development,
and we were about to launch a daughter company of SSC to commercialize
SPOT data products. Now we needed to show that satellite data could
be useful in Swedish applications. This meant showing that satellite
data could be integrated with other types of land information, such
as aerial photography, maps and statistical data. We needed to demonstrate
the potential to prospective users, and to convince them to integrate
the new source of data in their information systems. —
We clearly had a long way to go, but we were encouraged by our initial
results, working on the IAS with forestry and hydrology specialists.
We realized that we needed to bring image processing "to the
masses". For any serious applications to materialize, the users
needed to develop their own expertise and control their own information
processing tools. They could not be expected to rely on SSC for
their operational needs. This was the background for EBBA. We wanted
to quickly develop an inexpensive tool for visualizing and exploiting
satellite data and other forms of raster data. (Any type of scanned
data, including scanned X-ray images in medical applications, could
benefit.) This "philanthropic" approach was in contrast
to a profit-maximizing scheme (although we did not exclude taking
a more commercial approach at some future time). It also made it
possible to solicit government financing for the development effort
(with a fixed royalty to be paid in case we turned the project into
a commercial success). Our primary targets were university institutions
and developers of methodology in public and private organizations.
EBBA-I is in the box under
the tapedeck in the center.
An in-house prototype of EBBA was developed in 1980. It had 3 layers
of 256*256 pixel 8-bit mage data and 4 layers of 256*256 pixel 1-bit
data (used for graphic overlays).
Data were read from a diskette or from a tape recorder. Basic image
processing functions were available, such as interactive contrast
enhancement, pseudo coloring, readout of position and intesity values
of each pixel, defining an area using the graphic overlays and performing
statistical analysis in the defined area, addition and subtraction
of grey values, zoom function etc. The software was written in assembler
language and partly in Basic. More advanced processing, such as
thematic classification and geometrical precision corrections, were
not supported. All EBBA functions were commanded from a Swedish
microcomputer (Metric 85).
A total of 15 EBBA-I boxes were manufactured. We considered this
quite encouraging, considering the system's limitations and the
lack of maturity among Swedish users.
EBBA-II was developed in 1983-84. Its image memory had now been
upgraded to 3 layers of 512*512 pixels and 8 graphic overlays of
the same size. A number of peripherals were included as options:
a video camera, a digitizer (for capturing map coordinates), a color
printer, and a Winchester disk drive. The newly introduced IBM PC
was chosen as the standard host computer. (On the strength of an
article I had read in Business Week, I had concluded that IBM was
likely to define the standard for future personal computers. Its
success depended on the popularity of the VisiCalc spreadsheet program,
used by "bean counters" everywhere in corporate America.)
We also developed a version for the VAX minicomputer.
The basic functions were written in assembler language and optimized
for speed. They were "burned" into programmable memory
("firmware") and called from the host, which could also
combine them and perform more complex operations.
The EBBA-II image processing
Those were exhilarating times. We felt that we were in the frontline
of technical development and were building wonderful things. Our
engineers put their souls into their work. Invariably, when I visited
the office on a Saturday to compose a memorandum or "play"
with the IAS, I would find the project manager Bengt Holmqvist and
his colleagues Gudmund Johansson and Hans Ringstrand there, working
in their free time. Pride and passion were their motivation.
In parallel, a rudimentary production and sales organization was
set up. Top management directed that EBBA should be produced at
our Esrange facility in northern Lapland, some 800 miles north of
Stockholm, where some surplus capacity was available. Our sales
efforts included a presentation at a large symposium in Paris in
1984. — One of our less expected customers
was a small handicraft company, which wanted to use EBBA to design
new textiles patterns.
There were some glitches. Production at Esrange was hampered by
sickness and shifting priorities, which in turn led to quality problems.
The physical distance did not help. Our development team was forced
to spend several weeks identifying and correcting production mistakes.
— An unrelated issue was that the original
design turned out not to be sufficiently robust. Electric pulses
would occasionally arrive in the wrong order. Again, it required
an extra effort to identify and correct the problem.
The whole development was done on a shoestring budget. Through
1984 approx. SEK 1 million was spent, half of which was financed
by the government. (1 MSEK in 1984 equals approx.
2 MSEK in 2010, which corresponds to approx. € 200 k or $ 300
k in current terms.)
Decision making prior to
the arrival of Håkan Kihlberg.
In 1984, all remote sensing activities within SSC were organized
into a separate division headed by Håkan Kihlberg. Håkan
came from IBM, where he had been a sales manager. He brought discipline
and methodology to our work, with a clearer division of responsibilities
between the development, production and sales groups. Despite the
difference in our backgrounds, I found it easy to work with him.
He was a tough, inquisitive "no-nonsense" leader, but
being computer-literate he also fully appreciated our technical
achievements and understood their commercial potential. His arrival
shortened the time needed to get decisions.
Håkan quickly approved various upgrades to EBBA and gave
the green light to start development of the third EBBA generation.
He also established a partnership with a Canadian company, PCI.
(They had a software package called PACE. When their
representative saw our slogan SPACE IS OUR PLACE, he quickly scratched
out a few letters so it read PACE IS OUR ACE.) In 1985 Håkan
started a cooperation with Geobased in North Carolina, a company
specializing in geographic information systems.
EBBA-II was quite successful as an instrument for the promotion
of decentralized image processing and the development of applications
of satellite data. Some 30 systems were sold, some of them to foreign
Our third generation EBBA was named EBBA-GIS to emphasize our ambition
to turn it into a complete geographic information system based on
a desktop computer. The hardware was expanded to three 8-bit image
planes of 1024*1024 pixels (with 512*512 viewable on the screen)
and eight 1-bit graphic planes of 1024*1024 pixels. The software
offered on the host computer was greatly expanded. It included raster-to-vector
and vector-to-raster conversion and geometric precision corrections.
(See system description.)
We introduced it at an international symposium in Beijing in 1986.
We felt that we had at least a one-year lead over our competitors
at the time. Their main problem in handling image data was that
they were forced to handle all processing in general-purpose computers,
which sometimes seemed glacially slow, while our EBBA processor
was lightning fast. — Again we received a
modest contribution from the Government for the development of EBBA-GIS.
This time the cheque was
endorsed by the Minister of Industry!
Håkan Kihlberg left SSC after just two years in 1986. He was
chafing under restrictions imposed by top management. He toyed with
the idea to spin off the remote sensing division as an independent
company, but found out that few of his fellow workers were willing
to take the plunge. (Another source of frustration was the reluctance
of top management to invest in a PC network at SSC.)
Håkan's departure effectively doomed EBBA. Sales efforts
stalled and partnerships went sour. (I urged, to no avail, that
EBBA-GIS should be taken on a road trip by car to the main universities
in the Nordic countries and Germany. Repeated requests from Hong-Kong
for a distributorship for China went unanswered.) Only a dozen or
so EBBA-GIS systems were produced. Development was gradually halted
(although I was personally involved in adding a menu system written
in Borland Turbo Pascal as an option to the command language used).
By the end of 1987 EBBA was no longer marketed. Top management had
the impression that it was just a piece of electronics that would
quickly become obsolete. The division manager reported to the Board
that "2 electronics engineers have been transferred to the
Space department" (referring to our geniuses Bengt and Gudmund).
Shortly thereafter, a related image processing development (MIMA)
was terminated. Later in the 1990s, our remote sensing methodology
unit was integrated with our daughter company Satellitbild and sold
to the Swedish Land Survey. I was the only "survivor"
of our activities related to satellite remote sensing, along with
the managing director of SSC!
|Combining different sources of data
in a geographic information system.
All of this may sound like sour grapes, but in retrospect I have
to agree that even if we had persisted, commercial success likely
would have eluded us. Other companies with similar ideas were to
prove eminently successful, but they were based in countries like
Canada, USA and Australia where geographic information is decentralized
and largely handled by private companies. In Sweden and Europe it
would have been difficult to develop a home market. At that time
almost all landscape information was held by the Swedish Land Survey,
which was a government monopoly. They had never been asked to supply
data in digital form. They had no policy for making the data available,
and they were understandably nervous at the mere thought of selling
"the crown jewels". The only way to access their data
was to scan their maps. And while we may have won the hearts and
minds of people at the working level among potential customers,
oftentimes their bosses would congratulate us on having perfected
"such a wonderful toy" after a demonstration of
how we could roam a "looking-glass window" over a map
to show an underlying satellite image.
Furthermore, continued development and marketing would have required
much greater resources than we had. If we were to serve professionals,
we would not have been able to risk that operations came to a standstill
if two or three key workers caught the flu. —
Two other image processing companies were started in Sweden around
that time. They each received tens of millions of Sw. Cr. in government
aid, and their products were comparable in complexity to EBBA-GIS.
Their descendants are now active in medical image processing.
Finally, there was the issue of investing in satellite data as
an important element of a business plan. A senior businessman asked
me: "Would you buy a ticket for a round-the-world trip from
an airline whose single airplane was under construction, where there
was no backup, no time table, and where the trip would be cancelled
in the event of cloud cover?" Yet, that was a fair comparison
to someone contemplating whether to base his business on data from
the planned high-resolution earth observation satellites until 1986
when SPOT-1 was launched.
Today, satellite data are routinely used in a large number of operational
applications, and there is a multi-billion dollar GIS market. Our
problem at the time was that few people realised that they had a
problem, and even fewer that we had a solution to the problem. Just
like the inventor of the wheel, I suppose...
Moral: It's the second mouse that gets the cheese!