The exact meaning of an image processing laboratory varies between different groups. In most fields, it is a location where raw data, either unprocessed images or computer image data, is sent for analysis. In some circles, it is the programming used to process the raw images. Many laypeople use the term to describe a place where film is developed into photographs. Even with these different views, in all of these different cases, a base and unprocessed image are altered into a usable form.
The most common usage of an image processing laboratory is a location that does image analysis. These laboratories are employed to go through image-based information for another company. They may enhance and sharpen poor images to retrieve information, take huge amounts of computer data and extract usable images or even look for inconsistencies and changes between multiple images. All of these require specialized machinery and skills to do effectively, which is why a third party image processing laboratory is used over in-house methods.
Many of the tasks performed by an image processing laboratory of this type are for high-tech companies that need extremely meticulous image analysis. A great example of this form of work is in the cosmological exploration field. In this case, an image processing laboratory is given a number of different pictures or a large amount of picture data that covers the same part of the sky over a long period. The company will analyze the images for aberrant movement in efforts to find new celestial objects. Once all of the information is processed, it goes back to experts that use the data to determine what the things in the pictures actually are.
In other fields, the image processing laboratory is the software and processes used to go from raw images to useful information. This usage of the term came about much later than the first but is becoming more common in an increasingly computer-based society. These programs essentially do the same thing as the company version, but forgo the human analysis in favor of a totally computerized process. This will drastically lower the processing time, but the programs are often limited in exactly what they are able to do.
People that have no real connection to the first two definitions will generally refer to any location that develops pictures as an image processing laboratory. This usage was common in the later part of the 20th century, after film cameras became common in households but before digital cameras took their place. As time goes on, sending film out for development is becoming much less common and this meaning is fading away.