A distinguished son of Kerala — and grandson of the state’s second chief minister, Pattom Thanu Pillai — is today one of the world’s top experts in computer vision and imaging.
Earlier this week, Shree K Nayar, the T C Chang Professor of Computer Science at Columbia University (New York), was named to receive the Japan-based Okawa Foundation’s prestigious prize for his seminal work in computational imaging techniques and specifically for his “invention of innovative imaging techniques and their widespread use in digital photography.”
Since the 1990s Prof Nayar has been a pioneer in combining optics with computer-based processes, and his work has resulted in the development of novel cameras for capturing 360-degree images.
His big breakthrough is said to be in harnessing assorted pixels (the tiny picture elements that go to make a photograph), for what is a key feature of most cameras on the better mobile phones today — High Dynamic Range or HDR.
This is essentially a technique of taking and combining multiple exposures of the same subject matter at different exposure levels to improve the final photo. It is estimated that over a billion smartphone users worldwide are using Nayar’s technology at any time.
Prof Nayar will receive the Okawa Prize in Tokyo, in March 2023.
Only weeks ago, the Indian National Academy of Engineering, elected Prof Nayar as a Foreign Fellow, citing his work in three areas — the creation of novel cameras that provide new forms of visual information, the design of physics-based models for vision and graphics and the development of algorithms for understanding scenes from images.
“Having received my first engineering degree in India, this recognition by the Indian National Academy of Engineering has special meaning to me,” said Nayar, who earned his electrical engineering degree from the Birla Institute of Technology in Ranchi in 1984, adding that, “It is a real honour and I believe it will give me the opportunity to forge new collaborations with my colleagues in India.”
His father RM Nayar was a former chairman of the public sector Electronic Trade and Technology Department (ETTDC).
Shree Nayar worked briefly for Taylor Instruments in Delhi before moving to the US where he obtained his masters degree in electrical engineering from North Carolina State University in 1986 and his doctorate in electrical and computer engineering from the Robotics Institute, at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 1991.
He joined the faculty of the Computer Science department in Columbia University in 1991 and became head of the department in 2009. He was elected to the (US) National Academy of Engineering in 2008 and to the National Academy of Inventors in 2014.
‘Transformed The Camera In Your Pocket’
In its January 2017 issue, the US magazine Popular Photography, in a profile drew attention to Prof Nayar’s unsung work that had sharply enhanced the quality of phone photography, hailing him as the man who "has already transformed the camera in your pocket”.
In fact, HDR was the result of 15 years of Research and Development where Nayar’s lab at Columbia University collaborated with industry leaders like Sony who turned the research into practical designs.
In accepting this week’s Okawa Prize, Prof Nayar acknowledges his debt to Japanese partners like Sony: “Over the last three decades, I have had many close and productive collaborations with Japanese researchers and companies. These have enabled my laboratory to translate our results into imaging technologies that are currently being used in consumer devices and factory automation systems.”
Automated Visual Inspection
Factory automation forms another strand of Prof Nayar’s work. It relates to understanding how light interacts with the physical world.
His inventions have translated into illumination methods for measuring the 3-dimensional shape of objects — a technique now widely used for automated visual inspection in factory assembly lines.
Amidst his high profile work in computer imaging, Prof Nayar found time to pursue a personal passion — using the camera as a tool to inspire creativity in the young.
He says: “The enormous appeal of the camera can be used to turn it into a compelling tool for learning. I believe that a camera designed for education must have three features. First, it should be designed as a kit for assembly — putting the kit together should expose the user to a wide range of science concepts. Second, it should include features that cannot be found in other cameras, allowing the user to explore new creative dimensions. Finally, it should be low-cost, making it accessible to the less privileged.”
Camera Kit For Kids
With this in mind, Nayar designed the experiential Bigshot camera and helped to market it in kit form. Children could easily assemble the camera which came with a hand-cranked dynamo — so that it would continue working even if the rechargeable battery was drained.
With a simple flip, a child could switch to one of three modes: normal view, wide-angle and 3-D photography. The camera has been supplied to many educational institutions in India and worldwide.
Like everything Prof Nayar does, the bigshot camera touches everyone, age no bar.
The website says blandly that it is for ages 8 to 108!
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