As a young student in Venezuela in the early 1970s, Hugo Gaggioni, 54, applied for a government scholarship that he figured would help him pay for college. As it turns out, there were a couple of catches.
Gaggioni got the scholarship, but the stipulation was that he'd have to study abroad. He didn't want to leave his family, but he began daydreaming about going to the University of Michigan to study electronic engineering. As it turns out, Michigan wasn't the place Venezuela wanted him to go. He didn't know they got to choose.
So Gaggioni, chief technology officer for the broadcast and production systems division at Sony Electronics and a recipient of this year's Technology Leadership Award, was sent to the University of Essex in England. It was a fateful event that shaped his life and career.
He couldn't have known it then, but the University of Essex would set him on track to become a pioneer in digital television and high-definition TV, both concepts that seemed beyond futuristic 35 years ago.
“Most students went to the United States, but I was selected to go to Essex and I had no idea what Essex was good in,” he says. He found out: “It was very good in digital television,” a technology so foreign in the 1970s that he had no idea what he was in for. But, as he says, suggesting the power of a higher authority, “Someone else was pulling the strings.”
MENTORS SHOW THE WAY
It was at Essex where Gaggioni met the first of two business mentors: Donald Pearson, a professor who Gaggioni calls “one of the initial legends in the creation of digital television.” Pearson worked closely with Gaggioni and inspired him to tackle tough projects.
“They asked for a project and I chose to develop an interframe compression, which back then was absolutely crazy. It took me three years to build the equipment because we didn't have computers [that were] fast enough.”
By the late 1970s, Gaggioni also helped develop a forerunner to MPEG, which digitally compresses audio and video files and is now commonplace.
“When you're young, you don't worry about making money, you just go for it,” he says. “Fortunately, I ended up selecting a subject that was very hot.”
Gaggioni finally made it to the U.S. in 1980, studying the compression of digital television and earning advanced degrees at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University. During a break from school, a friend suggested he send some of his work on digital compression to RCA. Gaggioni was hired and it was there he met his second mentor, Larry Thorpe. Today, Thorpe is national marketing manager of Canon's broadcast and communications division.
Gaggioni spent a few years after that at Bell Communications Research, working in part on high-definition television. In 1988, Thorpe, who'd gone to Sony, hired him to work on hi-def TV, such as it was 20 years ago.
SELLING DOCTORS ON HD
“He is quite skilled in some of the contemporary technologies—compression is his specialty,” Thorpe says. “He also showed a lot of interest in high-definition in its early days, which is why I brought him over to Sony.”
Together, Gaggioni and Thorpe hit the pavement for years, lugging heavy, archaic HD equipment to Hollywood studios and TV networks around the country to show off the technology. They even took it to medical labs, to show how HD could give doctors a better look at what was wrong with a patient.
Today, it's hard to fathom that anyone was even thinking about HD two decades ago. Not only was Gaggioni thinking about it, he was part of a team actively trying to establish a worldwide standard for the 1080-line HD production format, along with Thorpe and as part of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE).
The production standard was established after many years of committee meetings, white papers and traveling the world to give presentations and demonstrations.
Gaggioni has now been at Sony for some 20 years. He's been focused a lot of that time on HD, but he's also been at the forefront of other technologies.
'A RARE GIFT'
He was the Sony representative in establishing standards for MPEG in the late 1990s and, more recently, he worked on the material exchange format (MXF) for tapeless recording. “The idea was to create a file format that could be exchanged between the equipment of different vendors, to create harmony in a tapeless world,” he says.
Today, Gaggioni's back and forth between Sony's offices here and in Japan, working to create next-generation compression devices and transmission devices. He's considered a leading source of information about compression, optical disk recording and HD—technologies that long ago never even occurred to that young student in Venezuela.
“He has a great gift,” Thorpe says. “He is very skilled at presenting and explaining difficult technical things. If he were in front of managerial people, he could dumb it down. If he were in front of technical people, he could more than hold his own in front of top experts.”