Birth and Infancy
Dr. Jaakko Sauvola,
“When your path is blocked, be like water when it encounters an obstacle – flow around it, or, with patience, rise over it” is a phrase Dr. Jaakko Sauvola, MediaTeam’s Director, thinks accurately describes MediaTeam. For him, MediaTeam’s story began in the early 90s, when he became acquainted with the academic world while, at the same time, working in the telecommunications industry. “I began to wonder why there was so little focused research going on in areas that tie together intelligent networking and multimedia processing.” Sauvola explains. Thus, the idea of MediaTeam started to grow. Working with his own research in the area and recognizing the needs of the emerging industry, Sauvola decided that it would make sense to start a group to research multimedia in the context of mobility and networking: “It became apparent to me that more research investment was needed – more than one person and a few colleagues can do.” he explains.
MediaTeam was officially established in 1997, after careful planning by Jaakko Sauvola and Timo Ojala. At first, between 1997 and 1999, MediaTeam, or “Media Processing Team” as it was called back then, worked in close cooperation with the Machine Vision Group in the University of Oulu: their research findings were reported together to Infotech Oulu, a local umbrella organization for information technology research. MediaTeam, in its present form, came into being during 1999, when the Machine Vision and Media Processing unit of the Information Processing and Computer Engineering Laboratory in the University of Oulu – 85 persons in total – was divided into two independent research groups, Machine Vision Group and MediaTeam, in order to facilitate efficient research in terms of focus, goals and resources.
From the start, MediaTeam was different from the research groups one could typically find from the academic world at that time. Sauvola wanted to create a team-driven research culture: “Traditionally, researchers did not share their ongoing research with each other. They kept more to themselves, due to academic legacy, the culture of publication and funding.” he explains. “We started with a different process - with a strong identity that we would be a Team with a capital ‘T’ and work with challenges that require much tighter collaboration between researchers than usual. That has allowed us to tackle much bigger problems.” Team work, however, was not the only thing that was different. Since research in universities is mostly funded by taxpayers, Sauvola wanted to make sure that the general public and decision-makers understood why this research is important. Thus MediaTeam set as its goal not only academic achievements, but also creating new business opportunities, jobs and technology enablers for the emerging industry. From the start, one of the key drivers was to seamlessly mix applied research with basic, academic research, to accelerate research dissemination and, more importantly, to enable researchers to learn faster. In order to make this possible, MediaTeam was created to be a place that was not solely meant for technical people – it would employ people with extremely different backgrounds and skills. An engineering student might work with another, but also with a linguist, mathematician or a graduate in psychology. “This so-called cross-pollination is always useful.” Sauvola says. “We always hired more people than was the plan, but they gave us new ideas, and branched our research to new interesting applications. It is said that it takes ten years to develop into a real research group, but thanks to our active hiring policy, we exceeded the critical mass and grew into a highly diversified group relatively quickly.” Besides being multidisciplinary, MediaTeam’s research is multicultural, as well: it has employed people from many different parts of the world, and has had regular research visits to foreign partner universities. MediaTeam has also carried its own weight in the field of international cooperation by arranging international events, such as IR 2001 (with the Department of Information Studies), establishing the MUM conference series, hosting it in 2002 and 2007, and hosting the Wireless Cities 2006 conference (with the City of Oulu).
MediaTeam’s research originally took place in five competence teams: computer telephony integration (CTI), content-based multimedia retrieval (CMR), media telephony (MET), mobile information systems (MIS) and multimedia signal processing (MSP). “These teams were born out of necessity - there was a need for this kind of research.” Sauvola explains. “They were based on a vision of structural, networked multimedia. That vision still exists today.” Nowadays there are no more competence teams – currently, research at MediaTeam is focusing on six areas: image and video processing, information hiding, language and speech technology, mobile services, distributed computing and packet networks. When combined, these strategic research areas contribute to solving a vast scale of important problems and enable new solutions to emerge.
The CMR team leaving for a survivor trip.
For MediaTeam, the role of team spirit cannot be stressed enough – the group’s name contains the word ‘team’ for a reason. Besides making them share their expertise and ongoing research with each other, Sauvola wanted MediaTeam researchers to have fun together. “We had a totally new approach, since fun is the mother of creativity.” says Timo Ojala, MediaTeam’s Associate Director. “For example, we had these survivor-style trips that I doubt anyone could ever forget.” These trips were not walks in the park, either – the people were young and continuously at the limits of their knowledge with their research, and all that hard work had to be balanced somehow. Even though ‘team spirit’ is a cliché nowadays, this level of integration of work and personal life was rare back then. Although MediaTeam has grown much since, the ideals behind its name have not been forgotten – it may have become more difficult to organize frequent 'ad-hoc' meetings that everybody could fit into their schedules, but the spirit has never been lost.
As for research, MediaTeam is still surfing at the top of the information age, just like it has always claimed. “It’s still valid.” Sauvola says. “’Surfing at the top of the information age’ is all about being able to pick the right things to study – being on top of the next wave.”
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