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Electrical and Computer Engineering

Arun Netravali '71 Awarded 2017 Marconi Prize

The former President of Bell Labs is renowned for revolutionizing the field of digital video technology. He received his M.S. from Rice in 1969 and his Ph.D. in 1971. 

June 2017

2017.06.NetravaliCongratulations to Rice ECE graduate Dr. Arun Netravali '69 '71 on receiving the 2017 Marconi Prize. Dr. Netravali is the former President of Bell Labs (now Nokia Bell Labs) and leader of pioneering work on video compression standards that served as the key base technology for MPEG 1, 2 and 4 and enabled a wide range of video services including digital TV, HDTV, and streaming video, ushering in a digital video revolution. The technology is used in most TV sets and all mobile phones today.

The Marconi Society, established in 1975 by Gioia Marconi Braga, each year recognizes one or more scientists who – like her father, radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi – pursue advances in communications and information technology for the social, economic and cultural development of all humanity. Past winners have included a host of Internet pioneers including Dr. Robert Kahn, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Dr. Robert Metcalfe, as well as individuals who have made giant contributions to search, wireless technology, positional and navigational technology, information theory, optical communications, networking and encryption.

“Few things have had a greater impact on communications in recent years than the digital video revolution led by Arun,” says Dr. Vint Cerf, Chairman of the Marconi Society and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google. “Everywhere you look, video is transforming the way we communicate on mobile devices and how we consume entertainment and news. Movies, YouTube, live streaming–it is literally transforming how people interact. The next generation of video based on this technology, including virtual reality, promises to revolutionize video consumption, delivery and business models once again.”

Dr. Netravali’s decades-long career at Bell Labs included launching research in video coding and compression in the early 1980s, and HDTV and video networking research in the early 1990s. He helped convince the organization to undertake big system initiatives like HDTV and Softswitch, and his research team proved the viability of HDTV, earning the company a trial with TV manufacturer Zenith. That resulted in the first commercially viable HDTV system. HDTV was a hit with consumers—and a profitable enterprise for AT&T.

During his career at Bell Labs Dr. Netravali took pride in helping promote a highly collaborative approach to research.

“Bell Labs cultivated the brightest minds across many different science and engineering disciplines; it is this diversity that really enables large-scale system development,” he says. “Regardless of one’s role, we knew that the fundamental mission was excellence in communications.” Netravali created a single, interdisciplinary team to develop HDTV and MPEG – a new type of organization where researchers and developers sat side-by-side to deliver new technologies quickly to the market. New research ideas in digital video – based on fundamental research advances – quickly found their way into deployed products.

As president, Dr. Netravali applied the same approach to other research areas at the Labs, including packet networks, fiber optics and all scalable IP cellular networks. He led Bell Labs (Lucent) at a time when it had 22,000 employees and a budget of $3.5 billion, launched 35 ventures, turned out an average of four patents per day, and developed leading edge products in wireless, optical and data communications at record speeds.

Professor Victor Lawrence of Stevens Institute of Technology, who led the team that developed HDTV at Bell Labs, says, “Dr. Netravali’s multidisciplinary paradigm created an exciting work environment for both researchers and developers and attracted top talent from around the world.”

Broadcom Scientist Dr. Mehdi Hatamian says Dr. Netravali provided “extraordinary leadership for Bell Labs to continue to remain at the top of worldwide industrial R&D laboratories for communications services and products. This, he had achieved by directing Bell Labs to maximize productivity and reduce time intervals in going from concept to products, to match the highly focused small venture companies around the world. He did this through his exceptional management skills and personal charisma, creating high morale and a sense of satisfaction among talented technologists and proactive business people.”

Dr. Netravali, a native of India, had not considered a career in science until he saw a high school friend he admired filling out an entrance application to attend the Indian Institutes of Technology. He decided to fill out an application too, and passed the entrance exam. He initially studied chemical engineering, but quickly realized it wasn’t his passion—so he switched to electrical engineering and immediately fell in love with the subject.

When he arrived in the US in 1967 hoping to attend Rice University as a graduate student, he was welcomed with a full scholarship and a host family that embraced him. In addition to tutoring the family’s children, he took a variety of odd jobs to help pay his way, and says the opportunity to interact with individuals from a wide variety of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds gave him a deep belief that America’s strength comes from its diversity. By the time he earned his PhD in 1970, he was committed to making a positive impact on his adopted country.

Bell Labs provided that opportunity. His first boss was C. Chapin “Chape” Cutler, who taught him to keep a notebook to which he added new research ideas every day, and who insisted meetings be conducted while walking up several flights of stairs—because “only healthy minds can generate great ideas.” (To this day, Dr. Netravali says he rarely takes elevators.)

When he began working on video, he had an epiphany. In a moment of insight, he realized that most video changes only slightly from frame to frame, and if one could send only the differences associated with moving objects (after compensating for motion) the bandwidth required could be vastly reduced. Further efficiency could be achieved by packet switching.

Dr. Netravali was the first to invent an iterative algorithm to estimate motion of objects on a TV screen. The cleverness of the algorithm is its real-time implementation.

This required engineering trade-offs to reduce complexity without sacrificing performance. Good performance in video compression requires excellent statistical and perceptual modeling to keep coding noise in less visible areas of the picture. Dr. Netravali worked on perceptual models of human vision to place the quantization noise in the least perceptually visible areas of the coded pictures. He now holds 100 patents in the areas of computer networks, human interfaces to machines, picture processing and digital television.

After retiring from Bell Labs, Dr. Netravali became a founder and managing partner of OmniCapital, a private equity firm based in Massachusetts and New Jersey. He is a frequent keynote speaker at major industry forums. His many awards include the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal, the IEEE Frederik Philips Award, the IEEE Jack S. Kilby Signal Processing Medal, the NEC C&C Prize, and the Padma Bhushan Award from the President of India. He also received an Emmy for the HDTV Grand Alliance in 1994, and in 2001 he received the National Medal of Technology from President Bush.

“Arun possesses extraordinary leadership and brilliant conceptual and research capabilities,” Dr. Cerf says. “We’re honored to be presenting him with this well-deserved recognition.”

The awards ceremony will take place in Summit, New Jersey on Oct. 3, preceded by a symposium at Nokia Bell Labs in Murray Hill, on digital video and its societal impact. The Marconi Society’s 2017 Paul Baran Young Scholar Awards and Lifetime Achievement Award will also be presented that evening.

Hatti Hamlin, The Marconi Society