Shree Nayar Wins Okawa Prize

Computer Scientist honored for his pioneering research in imaging

Dec 19 2022 | By Holly Evarts | Photo Credit: Christine Keeley
Columbia Engineering Computer Science Professor Shree Nayar

Shree Nayar, Credit: Christine Keeley

Shree K. Nayar, the T. C. Chang Professor of Computer Science at Columbia Engineering, has been awarded the prestigious Okawa Prize from the Okawa Foundation of Japan for his seminal work on computer vision and computational imaging. Nayar is being recognized for “the invention of innovative imaging techniques and their widespread use in digital photography and computer vision.” He will receive the prize at a ceremony to be held in Tokyo, Japan, in March 2023. 

“I am grateful to the Okawa Foundation for this honor,” said Nayar, who directs Columbia’s Computational Imaging and Vision Laboratory. “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. These collaborations have led to personal and professional relationships with a number of gifted researchers in Japan that have had special meaning to me.”

What is the Okawa Prize?

The Okawa Prize is endowed by the Okawa Foundation and “is intended to pay tribute to and make public recognition of persons who have made outstanding contributions to the research, technological development, and business in the information and telecommunications fields, internationally.” Since 1996, the prize is given each year to one Japanese and one international researcher. The Japanese recipient of the 2022 prize is Dr. Chieko Asakawa, an IBM Fellow who is being recognized for her work on accessibility. 

About Nayar's Work

Nayar’s work has changed the way visual information is captured and used by both machines and humans. In the mid-1990s, he pioneered the field of computational imaging, which combines unconventional optics with advanced image processing algorithms to produce immersive and interactive visual information. Based on this paradigm, Nayar and his collaborators developed novel cameras for omnidirectional imaging, depth imaging, giga-pixel imaging, and high-dynamic-range imaging. 

Nayar’s idea of creating assorted pixels for high-dynamic-range (HDR) imaging has enabled smartphone cameras to leapfrog in terms of the quality of the photos they capture. It is estimated that more than one billion smartphone users worldwide are using his technology on a daily basis. In 2017, Popular Photography magazine published a profile of Nayar in which he was credited for “transforming the camera in your pocket.”

A second major focus of Nayar’s work is to understand how light interacts with the physical world. His models for surface reflection, interreflection, texture, and atmospheric scattering are used by both researchers and practitioners in computer vision, graphics, and other fields. Nayar’s inventions related to active illumination methods for measuring 3D shapes of objects are widely used for visual inspection and factory automation. 

Nayar's Honors and Awards

In recognition of his pioneering work on imaging and vision, Nayar was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2008, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2011, the National Academy of Inventors in 2015, and the Indian National Academy of Engineering in 2022. As commendation for the impact of his inventions on digital imaging and machine vision, he received the NTT Distinguished Scientific Award in 1994, the Sony Appreciation Honor in 2014, the IEEE PAMI Distinguished Researcher Award in 2019, and the Funai Achievement Award in 2021. 

Nayar has also been honored for his talents as an educator—he received the Great Teacher Award from Columbia University in 2006 and the Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award from the Columbia Engineering Alumni Association in 2015. In 2021, he released his lecture series on the “First Principles of Computer Vision” on YouTube where it has received millions of views from students around the globe.

Okawa Prize Winners

As an international recipient, Nayar joins a highly select group. Previous international recipients of the Okawa Prize include John Hennessy, who is the Chairman of Alphabet Inc. and was the President of Stanford University; Ingrid Daubechies, a mathematician at Duke University who pioneered the use of wavelets for image compression; Adi Shamir, an Israeli cryptographer who co-invented the RSA security algorithm; Takeo Kanade, a pioneer in computer vision and robotics at Carnegie Mellon University; Raj Reddy, a AI pioneer and the founder of The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University; Mischa Schwartz at Columbia University who did foundational work in the field of telecommunications; and Leonard Kleinrock at the University of California at Los Angeles who played a key role in the creation of the Internet.

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