Home > What > Compression 101

What is data compression?

Data compression is the art and science of reducing the number of bits required to represent information.  With the Internet revolution, more and more information we generate is in digital form.  Digital data can be characters in a text file, numbers that are samples of speech or image waveforms.  The number of bytes needed to represent an image can be huge.  Compression creates compact representations by identifying and exploiting redundancies that exist in the structure of the data.


Why data compression?

Data compression is one of the most important enabling technologies of the information age.

Various forms of compression are part of almost every multimedia application.  Without compression, we wouldn't be able to put images, let alone audio or video on the Internet.  Long-distance calls, modems, fax machines—all rely on compression.  If it weren't for compression, cell phones would not be improving in clarity, we wouldn't have digital TV or satellite communications.  

Example of data compression—Morse Code

Morse code is an early example of data compression from the 19th century developed by Samuel Morse.  To send a message, letters are transmitted via telegraph are encoded as a series of dots and dashes.  Morse realized that certain letters are used more frequently than others, so in order to reduce the time necessary to send a message, he assigned shorter code sequences to letters that occurred more often such as "a" and longer ones to letters that appear less often, like "q" .

What is a compression algorithm?

A compression algorithm is the mathematical process for converting data into smaller packages.  A compression algorithm actually consists of two parts.  There is the encoding algorithm, which takes an input X and generates a representation Xc that requires fewer bits, and there is a decoding algorithm that takes Xc and reconstructs it as Y.  With lossless compression, X=Y.

What is lossless compression?

Lossless compression, as the name implies, involves no loss of information.  If an image has been losslessly compressed, the original data can be recovered exactly from the compressed data.  Lossless image compression is used primarily for archiving, since people want to save all of the original data.  TIF and LZW-TIF are commonly used lossless compression schemes.  Generally, images can be losslessly compressed at rates of about 2:1.

What is lossy compression?

Lossy compression techniques involve some loss of information.  As a result, the original image cannot be exactly reconstructed.   In other words, the image you get out of decompression isn't quite identical to what you originally put in.  In return for accepting varying levels of distortions and artifacts in the reconstruction, higher compression ratios are possible.  JPEG is the most common form of lossy compression.

What is visually lossless compression? 

The term visually lossless is a misnomer.  Visually lossless compression is actually lossy compression at low rates.  It means that the compressed file is "visually indistinguishable from the original", however there is still loss involved in the compression.  Lossless compression is a mathematical guarantee, visually lossless compression is subjective and means "close enough". 


What is a JPEG?

JPEG is a standard for representing images that was created in the late 1980s.  There are many different modes of JPEG including baseline, lossless, progressive and hierarchical.  The baseline mode is the most popular mode and supports only lossy coding.  There is a lossless-only mode of JPEG, but it never gained popular acceptance and is largely obsolete.

JPEG baseline divides an image into 8x8 blocks and compresses

To be continued...

Contact the Webmaster for questions, suggestions, or comments regarding this website.