ICS Invents Tools for Color-Accurate Visual Collaboration

Co-developer of ColorBlind continues to push the envelope

A smart way to investigate a new technology-related product is to ask for details on two things: 1) the background of the technical people behind it; and 2) other fields in which the technology is being used. For example, once you learn more about the company behind ICS's basICColor monitor-calibration package and the Remote Director soft-proofing system, you're likely to view these two products in a whole new light.

That's because the vice president of operations for Integrated Color Solutions (ICS) is Dan Caldwell, who co-created ColorBlind color-management software in 1994. Prior to that he worked in offset lithography for 20 years and operated high-end scanners while running his own prepress service bureau. After leaving the trade, Caldwell worked for a firm that developed RGB-to-CMYK conversion software for scanners. At this firm, he met Franz Herbert, the color scientist who is now the chief technology officer at ICS. Caldwell also helped develop the Profile City on-line profiling service, which gives creative professionals a way to obtain custom ICC profiles for their printers without having to buy color-measurement instruments and profiling software. Now part of ICS, Profile City supplies about 200 profiles a month.

But graphic-arts pros aren't the only ones benefiting from ICS's products. The firm is also marketing software for color-accurate visual collaboration in industrial design. These software tools reduce the time it takes manufacturers to develop products comprised of color-matched components. Take automobile manufacturing for example. The way it is now, each supplier of automotive paints, interior upholstery, and carpeting use their own internal process-control systems to color match their products to those of the other suppliers. Making the system work requires sending a physical sample of the carpet or paint to be matched to the other supplier so that color data can be measured. With ICS' color-accurate visual-collaboration tools, designers from all over the world can convene online to examine how the car and its interior and exterior colors would appear from different angles and under different lighting conditions. And the color data needed for color-matching components is easy to exchange.

What's this got to do with graphics? With Remote Director's color-accurate and dynamic soft-proofing, car manufacturers and other brand marketers can examine their ad campaigns in whole new ways. A car maker can visually compare how the actual colors used to make their new models look compared to the colors in images of the cars output on billboards, magazine ads, trade-show graphics, and promotional banners for their dealers. Maybe the car maker would like the billboard colors to match those of their magazine ads. But maybe not. After all, why should the billboard colors be compressed to match the more limited gamut of SWOP printing when the 16 ft, 8-color inkjet printers can produce images with colors that better match the true color of the vehicle? When used in conjunction with 3D design software, ICS's visual-collaboration software can even provide fast, color-accurate previews of how graphics-wrapped buses might actually look when driving down a sun-drenched street.

Needless to say, this technology could benefit wide-format graphics-production firms who need extremely fast, low-cost ways to show how the same image will appear when output from different devices, on different substrates, and to proofing standards other than SWOP.

This capability isn't as pie-in-the-sky as it might sound. One of Remote Director's most compelling features is that the soft-proof sender controls all the color data when the proofs are received for use on 24-bit color displays at the proof recipient's site(s). If the proof recipient's monitor isn't calibrated for accurate color viewing, a red stoplight and picture of a colorimeter appears on the client's screen. The client then simply hangs the colorimeter on the screen in the designated location and pushes a button. That's it. All the data needed to calibrate the monitor is relayed back to the host site, which makes the adjustments needed to give all monitors in the proofing session the "green light."

Many of the same sophisticated technologies used in Remote Director are now available in ICS's basICColor monitor calibration software, which sells for $149 ($249 with colorimeter). One feature likely to appeal to digital photography pros is a unique 16-bit gamut-compression tool that makes it possible to see much greater shadow detail in the images viewed on the screen.

"If you have deep, saturated colors in your image, most monitor profiling packages will display a dark red--as dark as the monitor can display it. Any reds that go darker than that just get displayed the same way," explains Caldwell. The gamut-compression technique developed by ICS avoids the tendency of saturated images to flatten out when displayed on screen. But this capability can be toggled off for precise rendering of graphics that within the display's gamut.

Will color management ever be easy? Caldwell has served on both the ICC and SWOP (the organization that sets standards for web offset printing) and would like to see manufacturers develop self-profiling digital input and output devices that would make ICC color-management easier for more people to use, "The only time ICC color management will be 100% successful is when everybody's using it and they don't know that they're using it." He expects it will happen some day. But for the time being, it's in the best interest of digital-prepress and printing hardware and software vendors to hang onto their proprietary color-management engines.

Even though Caldwell knows color-accurate soft-proofing has arrived, he's also aware that printing firms aren't likely to buy Remote Director until their customers start asking for it. So ICS has begun showing Remote Director to publishers and catalog companies who currently spend a lot of money on proofs"?even lower-cost. inkjet-generated proofs. He expects that when they calculate how much time and money they can save, they'll start asking their print suppliers, "Why can't you deliver proofs to me in this manner?"

From his background marketing ColorBlind, Caldwell knows it always takes time for new digital workflow technologies to take root--especially those that disrupt the daily routines used in most workplaces. He recalls that scanner operators initially felt threatened by ICC color management because it seemed likely to diminish their authority as color experts. That hasn't exactly been the case, though. As Caldwell points out, color-management simply provides tools for reproducing digital originals: "And very, very seldom do you want to reproduce the original. Typically, you want to lighten the image, brighten it, or remove color casts, and that's where the scanner operator's talent lies. Color-management simply allows scanner operators to achieve the desired results much more quickly and be much more productive." Caldwell hopes graphics firms will soon be able to say the same for remote soft proofing. (Integrated Color Systems: www.icscolor.com)

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