Data, science, algorithms are the tools that Abdul Rehman, CEO and co-founder of SSIMWAVE, uses to solve problems related to art, colour and emotion.

Abdul Rehman is an electrical engineer whose professional life has been dedicated to helping video content owners — think of broadcasters, filmmakers and production houses — deliver their images to audiences exactly as they were meant to be seen.

Dr. Abdul Rehman with this advisor and co-founder of SSIMWAVE, Professor Zhou Wang at the Image and Vision Lab, University of Waterloo

The specific problem he and his team work daily to address is this: The journey that a given film or video or live broadcast takes as it’s transported to an audience’s viewing device is one that is fraught with peril. The enemy is compression — the squeeze of data that is required to make enormous files viable for transport, both in terms of speed and economy. The result of compression is that the image that leaves a broadcaster’s studio is not necessarily the image received by a viewer.

SSIMWAVE’s technology measures the quality of an image in real time during the transmission process — in effect, seeing what the viewer would see — allowing broadcasters and content creators to make quality adjustments as their product is en route to a viewer. SSIMWAVE helps ensure that the image delivered to a home screen or a handheld device is what the creator intended and that it gets there as economically as possible.

Rehman, educated in Munich and Waterloo, Canada, has been working on solving video delivery, quality and measurement problems his entire career, studying under one of the pioneers in the field, Professor Zhou Wang, now his colleague and SSIMWAVE’s Chief Science Officer.

Their curiosity and passion for problem-solving led them to solutions that businesses were eager to have, leading them in turn to create a company, SSIMWAVE.

Dr. Rehman sat down recently to talk about his work, his life, and SSIMWAVE’s ongoing mission.

Q — Welcome. To get us started, tell us what the circumstances were that led to SSIMWAVE’s creation. What interested you about this field of study and problems related to video?

A — I was working with my [Masters degree] advisor in Munich in 2007, looking at the way all the video aspects were structured, and one of the things that were not being discussed in detail, but was done superficially, was the quality part. Although quality was one of the main questions that any of those algorithms or processes were trying to optimize for, it was always treated superficially.

Q — So then you came to work with Dr. Wang, here in Waterloo, because he was working on those problems and had developed a reputation in the field, is that right?

A — Yes. Exactly. What I noticed that was different from anyone else I had worked with previously was we would work on problems that are very relevant to the journey of the video, from creation to consumption. Professor Wang is really, if not the best, one of the best experts to work with. I wanted to pay back that opportunity by saying, “You took a difficult problem, and came to this point, and I’m going to help you with the next steps, if I can.

Q — And how did a company evolve from the research you two were doing together?

A — In the spring of 2011, while I was still working on my PhD, I started working at BlackBerry [nee RIM] as a research intern. I started talking with my group there about what I was working on — how to see the perceptual side of video.

They said, ‘Why don’t do you do a talk about it?’ I had worked with Professor Wang for about 18 months then on optimizing compression for perceptual quality. So, I did the talk, and they said, ‘We want to explore those ideas with you formally.’ So [BlackBerry] approached the University of Waterloo formally through their lawyer, and the University of Waterloo Commercialization Office said, ‘We need to protect the IP before we talk to anyone.’ And at that time, they said, ‘This is something interesting. If BlackBerry is interested in this, maybe other companies would be interested in this as well.’ So we started working with a few other companies. Towards the end of 2012, it became more and more obvious to me we needed to provide this as a solution to the industry. I started talking to Professor Wang: ‘Maybe we can do a company. Maybe we can provide this as a product.’ And we started working on more and more prototypes.

Q — Tell us a little more about the specifics of the problem your products solve, and why you decided to pursue answers in this field.

A — There was a shift [in industry], initially influenced by BlackBerry. Everyone was looking for a shortcut. The shortcut was: ‘Give me something magical to reduce the size of the data during a video transmission, while not compromising quality at all.’ This was actually my PhD topic, this was my thesis. It’s a very difficult problem. You are giving a video or an image to an algorithm, and asking a very simple question: How good is it? We are saying that we can tell that. If you ask someone who watches content, videos, it’s a very simple thing for them to do. But if you ask a computer, where do you start? It seems simple, from the problem-definition perspective, but from the solution perspective, it’s extremely difficult.

Q — And why is this important?

A — Well, the first part of the answer is that we all watch video, so it really impacts virtually everyone on the planet. Not in a life-saving perspective, but in a perspective that it does bring something to everyone’s life in a positive sense. Secondly, if we treat, hypothetically speaking, any piece of content that gets delivered from Point A to Point B as a piece of art, the people who created that art have specific ideas about how they want that piece of art to be perceived. Right now, there’s a big gap between how they see it in their minds, how they view it on the devices they have, and how it’s actually presented to [an audience]. We want to provide clarity, at least, to say how far this is from where it needs to be.

Q — Tell us about your background, and how that influences your work.

A — I come from a family that, relatively speaking, is not very educated. My family is from an agricultural background. All my uncles have land and cultivate land. My dad was the first one who did a Masters — in physical education — and got a good government position in sports. So we were the middle of the middle class. The school I went to was arguably the best school for engineering. The students who were the top of their boards. It was really the best of the best. My parents knew that, but they always asked me to go for more. And I think that became part of me, as a habit. I would top my class and I remember one semester I got a grade point average of 3.93 out of 4. There was no one else who got that, but the question I was asked by my parents was, why not 4? I always took that as a challenge in a positive way.

Q — Your journey, your study, your company, have all been focused on technical pursuit, but it’s led you to a place that isn’t necessarily technical. It’s about art, images, rendering beauty and emotion. How does that square with you?

A — One of the audiences I’ve talked to often is cinematographers. I enjoy talking to them. They correlate really well with us. They are very, very passionate. Their passion has taught me a whole lot. In their company, I try to imagine and visualize what they are thinking. I think it’s amazing how connected they are to the art they create and it makes you realize how important it is to protect that. Whether you write or paint or make a video. Science is just facilitating that. Scientists think that science is everything. Science is actually … it’s the human connection that is the real thing. Science is just facilitating that. We need to step above and higher than that and appreciate the bigger picture. All the science and the engineering and the business is a means to an end. The first step to get to the preservation of intent, or creative intent, as the cinematographers call it, is to bring transparency throughout the delivery chain, and to trace that journey. That’s what we’re working to achieve.