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1. Introduction

Ten to fifteen years ago fractal techniques were introduced in computer graphics. These new ideas came from a mathematical theory called Iterated Function Systems (IFS). This theory had been developed in 1981 by John Hutchinson. Michael Barnsley, researcher from Georgia Institute of Technology, wrote the popular book Fractals Everywhere. The book presents the mathematics of IFS, a new tool for modeling techniques in computer graphics, called as the Collage Theorem. The Collage Theorem states what an IFS must be like in order to represent an image.
This presented an intriguing possibility. If fractal mathematics is good for generating natural looking images (such as clouds, mountains, ...), could it not be used to compress images ? Going from a given image to an IFS that can generate original (more or less), is known as the inverse problem. This problem remains unsolved. Barnsley, however, thought he had it solved. He left Institute and found Iterated Systems Incorporated with Alan Sloan. At January 1988, he announced article in BYTE Magazine about some calculations of high compression ratio but article did not offer the solution of inverse problem. At that time nobody knew exactly how to reproduce images at reasonable compression rates with IFS. The only desperately suggestion to IFS-based compress given image is so called the Graduate Student Algorithm.

Graduate Student Algorithm:

Acquire a graduate student.
Give the student a picture.
And a room with a graphics workstation.
Lock the door.
Wait until the student has reverse engineered the picture.
Open the door.

Ironically, it was one of Barnsley's PhD students, Arnaud Jacquin, that made the Graduate Student Algorithm obsolete. In March 1988, according to Barnsley, he published a modified scheme for representing images called Partitioned Iterated Function Systems (PIFS). This broke the ice for a new approach of research in image encoding.

The idea in Jacquin's method was very simple. An image should not be considered of as a collage of copies of the entire image, but of copies of smaller parts of it. For instance, a part of a cloud does not look like an entire landscape with mountains, sky and clouds, but it probably looks like to another section of some cloud or some other parts in the image.
Fractal Image Compression was born.

2. What is Fractal Image Compression ?

Consider a special type of photocopying machine that reduces the input image by a half and reproduces it three times on the copy. What will be happen when we return back the output of the machine to the input ? Next figure shows the output images:

It is obvious that the output images converge to the Sierpinski triangle. This final image is called attractor for this photocopying machine. Any initial image (letter 'A' in our case) will be transformed to the attractor if we repeatedly run the machine. On the other words, the attractor for this machine is always the same image without regardless of the initial image. This feature is one of the keys to the fractal image compression.
How can we describe behaviour of the machine ? Transformations of the form as follows will help us.

Such transformations are called affine transformations. Affine transformations are able to skew, stretch, rotate, scale and translate an input image.
Barnsley suggested that perhaps storing images as collections of transformations could lead to image compression. His argument went from possibility to describe the image as a few parameters of affine transformations. If we have parameters of affine transformations (or photocopying machine) we can produce the image.
The machine produces self-similarity images called fractals.We need only a few parameters of affine transformations to produce Sierpinski triangle from any initial image. But, how to find parameters for any image ? (that is inverse problem mentioned earlier) Barnsley's dream is to discover algorithm for calculating these parameters. Unfortunately, images from the nature are very inapropriate for generating using affine transformations because natural images are not exactly self-similar. His dream had never came true.
However, the trick exists. But, first of all, lets describe Iterated Function Systems because Fractal Image Compression is based on it.

Iterated Function Systems

Behaviour of the photocopying machine is described with mathematical model called an Iterated Function System (IFS). An iterated function system consists of a collection of contractive affine transformations. This collection of transformations defines a map

For an input set S, we can compute for each i, take the union of these sets, and get a new set W(S). Hutchinson proved an important fact in Iterated Function Systems: if the are contractive, then W is contractive. Hutchinson's theorem tells us that the map W will have a unique fixed point in the space of all images. That means, whatever image (or set) we start with, we can repeatedly apply W to it and our initial image will converge to a fixed image. Thus W completely determine a unique image.
In other words, given an input image (or set) , we can repeatedly apply W (or photocopying machine described with W) and we will get as a first copy, as a second copy and so on. The attractor, unique image, as the result of the transformations is

Self-Similarity in Images

Now, we want to find a map W which takes an input image and yields an output image. If we want to know when W is contractive, we will have to define a distance between two images. The distance is defined as

where f and g are value of the level of grey of pixel (for greyscale image), P is the space of the image, and x and y are the coordinates of any pixel. This distance defines position (x,y) where images f and g differ the most.
Natural images are not exactly self similar. Lena image, a typical image of a face, does not contain the type of self-similarity that can be found in the Sierpinski triangle. But next image shows that we can find self-similar portions of the image.


Original Lena image Self-similar portions of the image

A part of her hat is similar to a portion of the reflection of the hat in the mirror. Tha main distinction between the kind of self-similarity found in the Sierpinski triangle and Lena image is that the triangle is formed of copies of its whole self under appropriate affine transformation while the Lena image will be formed of copies of properly transformed parts of itself. These parts are not exact the same; this means that the image we encode as a set of transformations will not be an identical copy of the original image. Experimental results suggest that most images such as images of trees, faces, houses, clouds etc. have similar portions within itself.

Partitioned Iterated Function Systems

For encoding of the image, it is neccesary to divide it into non-overlapped pieces (so called domains, D) which are each transformed separately. By partitioning the image into pieces, we must to encode many shapes that are difficult to encode using an IFS. Because, we have to use Partitioned Iterated Function Systems (PIFS). PIFS is also based on affine transformation but, now it describes transformation from one piece of the image to another (so called ranges, R). Affine transformation mentioned earlier is able to "geometricaly" transform part of the image but is not able to transform grey level of the pixel. That is reason, we have to add a new dimension into affine transformation

where represents the contrast, the brightness of the transformation and .
The transformation W has to be contractive in all three directions: x, y and z. That transformation will be contractive when z distances are shrunk by factor less than 1 or when each < 1 (some experiments show that 1.2 is still safe).
Now, when we have mathematical "background" we are able to consider process of encoding images.

Encoding Images

Suppose we have an image f that we want to encode. On the other words, we want to find a collection of maps with and . That is, we want f to be the fixed point of the map W. The fixed point is

We seek a partition of f into N non-overlapped pieces of the image to which we apply the transforms and get back f. This is too optimistic, because the image is not exactly composed of pieces that can be transformed and fit somewhere else in the image. What we can expect is another image with small. On the other words, we seek a transformation W whose fixed point is not f, but it is close to.

The measure of approximation is distance

We should find pieces and maps , so that when we apply a to the part of the image over , we should get something that is very close to the any other part of the image over . Finding the pieces and corresponding by minimizing distances between them is the goal of the problem.

At the end, let consider one remarkable example:
Suppose we have to encode 256x256 pixel greyscale image. Let be the 8x8 pixel non-overlapping sub-squares of the image, and let D be the collection of all overlapping 16x16 pixel sub-squares of the image (general, domain is 4 times greater than range). The collection D contains (256-16+1) * (256-16+1) = 58,081 squares. For each search through all of D to find with minimal distances. There are 8 ways (the square can be rotated to 4 orientations or fliped and rotated into further 4 orientations) to map one square onto another. That means, we have to compare 8 * 58,081 = 464,648 squares with each of the 1024 range squares. Also, a square in D is 4 times smaller as an , so we have to average a square from D and prepare it for comparing.
To find most-likely sub-squares we have to minimize distance equation. That means we must find a good choice for that most looks like the image above (in any of 8 ways of orientations) and find a good contrast and brightness . For each , pair we can compute contrast and brightness using least squares regression which has the least root means square (rms) difference

. The squared Euclidean distance is used for this purpose

where is pixel intensities from , is pixel intensities from , and s and o are contrast and brightness respectively. To compute contrast and brightness, we have to compute a minimum of the distance. The minimum of E occurs when the partial derivatives with respect to s and o are zero

which occurs when


A choice of with a corresponding and determines a map . Once we have the collection we can decode the image by estimating .
Each transformation requires 8 bits in the x and y direction to locate the position of , 7 bits for , 5 bits for and 3 bits to determine a rotation and flip operation for mapping to . We need 31 bits per transformation of 8x8 pixel sub-squares (8x8x8=512 bits), giving a compression ratio 512/31 = 16.5:1.
Compression ratio is one of the parameters which determine compression algorithm. Th second parameter is peak-to-peak signal-to-noise ratio (PSNR). For 8-bit gray scale images the PSNR is defined as

There are many other modification of mentioned algorithm such as: quadtree partitioning, HV-partitioning, triangular partitioning, self vector quantization, convolution transform coding etc.

Encoding Color Images

There is very little work has been published on color fractal image compression. Recommendation is that not to encode the RGB components separately but YIQ channels. YIQ channels can be encoded individually; the I and Q channels should be encode at a lower bit rate than the Y channel.
Other suggestion is to encode the green component of RGB components individually and try to predict the other (R and B) components.

Fractal Image Compression versus JPEG Compression

At high compression ratios, fractal compression has similar compression and quality performance as the JPEG standard. Let see some comparisons:

Original Lena image (184,320 bytes)


JPEG-max. quality (32,072)
comp. ratio: 5.75:1
FIF-max. quality (30,368)
comp. ratio: 6.07:1


JPEG-med. quality (11,278)
comp. ratio: 16.34:1
FIF-med. quality (7,339)
comp. ratio: 25.11:1


JPEG-min. quality (8,247)
comp. ratio: 22.35:1
FIF-min. quality (3,924)
comp. ratio: 46.97:1

These are expected results for Fractal Compression. Some images can be compressed over 80:1 or higher. We can see worse image quality for higher compression ratios.
Fractal Compression is an asymmetric process, compression taking a long time compared with decompression. JPEG/DCT is symmetric process, encoding and decoding taking the same amount of time. Fractal compression times can be decreased by using a dedicated hardware. For example, for a 640 x 400 pixel 24 bit colour image, JPEG software compression and decompression took 6 seconds each, for fractal compression the time was 68 seconds and decompression was only one second. Reading the original uncompressed image required two seconds.
Another one very important feature of the Fractal Image Compression is Resolution Independence.
Fractal encoding image has no natural size. It is set of transformations defined on domains and ranges of the image. When we want to decode image, only thing we have to do is apply these transformations on any initial image (it is usually grey rectangle for greyscale images) iteratively. Every iteration is step closer to the decoded image. After each iteration, details on the decoded image are sharper and sharper. That means, the decoded image can be decoded at any size. The extra detail needed for decoding at larger sizes is generated automatically by the encoding transforms. The next question is: if we decode an image at larger and larger sizes, will we be able to see atoms of the Lena's face ? The answer is, of course, no because we are encoding digitized image which is only approximation of the nature image but on the larger sizes we do not have "pixelization" effect than we get sharper details.


Lena's eye
original image enlarged to 4 times
Lena's eye
decoded at 4 times its encoding size

This feature of Fractal Image Compression is unique.

So why isn't everyone using Fractal Image Compression ?

Fractal Image Compression is still under development. Many different researchers and companies are trying to develope a new algorithms to reach shorter encoding time and smaller files. But there are still some problems with fractal compression. Fractal Compression Standard does not exist ! FIF, Fractal Image Format is not standardized, is not embedded into any browsers etc.
In spite of all, total number of publications on fractal image compression is growing; over 280 papers was published last year.

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