Today, Andrew Viterbi, Donald Bitzer and John Daugman will be among 17 honorees inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame at the United States Patent and Trademark Office headquarters in Alexandria, Va. The honor and their accomplishments are in part a testimony to the power of funding by the National Science Foundation.
Viterbi, an electrical engineer and cofounder of wireless technology giant Qualcomm, used NSF support to develop an important wireless communication technique and push for its commercialization. Bitzer, his co-inductee, used NSF support to drive the adoption of a novel system of computer-based learning that ultimately led to wide acceptance of plasma displays. Daugman used his NSF support to study basic, theoretical questions involving computer vision that later applied to his invention of iris recognition.
"The technologies created by these highly innovative people are proof positive that NSF is where discoveries begin and that those discoveries often result in useful products and processes that benefit people all over the world," said Pramod Khargonekar, assistant director of NSF's Engineering Directorate, which funded research conducted by Viterbi.
In 1987, Viterbi received the first of two NSF Small Business Innovation Research awards to further develop Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), a technology used in wireless communication throughout the world. CDMA is a digital technique that allows multiple users to communicate with cell phones, satellites and radios on the same physical channel through the sharing of bandwidth or a band of frequencies.
The award, granted two years after Qualcomm started, and at a time when the company had only 35 employees--it now has more than 16,500 employees in 157 locations worldwide--was a major step in Qualcomm's growth and the eventual acceptance of digital CDMA technology as the commercial standard for cellular telephones. CDMA previously had been used successfully by the military in the early 1950s.
Viterbi, who in 1967 had published research that revolutionized aspects of digital communication, received a second NSF SBIR award in 1989. Together, the two awards totaled more than $265,000. Qualcomm generated $19 billion in revenues in 2012.
Bitzer used his NSF support to broaden use of the first computer system to offer high-quality, computer-based education that was later coupled with plasma display technology. He, along with colleagues at the University of Illinois in the early 1960s, created PLATO, the first computer system to combine graphics and touch-sensitive screens to provide free, computer-assisted instruction to university students and local schools.
This was a novel idea at the time, seen as a way of teaching the many new students who were enrolling in U.S. colleges and universities. The increase in enrollment was in part a result of the G.I. Bill, which offered military veterans cash payments for tuition and living expenses to attend college.
Once the computer scientists were convinced that PLATO, more formally known as Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations, would work, Bitzer and colleagues then pursued a belief that it was important for researchers and students to become better trained in the concepts of parallel processing on which the system operated. They submitted a grant proposal to NSF and in 1967 received funding that allowed them to grow the University of Illinois' now highly-regarded Computer-based Education Research Laboratory (CERL), which had been formally established in 1966.
From 1968 through 1974, CERL received 11 awards totaling about $4.5 million, most of them for making PLATO available for use nationally and internationally. Bitzer's NSF awards were funded by the former Office of Computing Activities, which served as a precursor to NSF's Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE).
With NSF support, CERL engaged in development and research of computer-based education that ultimately led to PLATO computer systems comprising several thousand concurrently-connected terminals worldwide on nearly a dozen different networked mainframe computers by the late 1970s.
In 1972, a new display was needed for PLATO because traditional displays flickered and made users eye-weary, had no inherent memory and lacked high brightness and contrast. So Bitzer and his colleagues, Robert Willson and Gene Slottow, incorporated another of their inventions called an orange plasma display--a forerunner of today's plasma televisions.
It was a major innovation that combined memory and bitmapped graphics into one display. Plasma display is also the invention for which Bitzer and his colleagues will be honored by the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Some 50 years later, PLATO and the materials that NSF helped develop are still in use by educators around the world. The system's longevity shouldn't surprise anyone. After all, PLATO and CERL researchers helped establish important online concepts, such as message boards, e-mail, chat rooms, instant messaging, multi-player games and remote screen sharing, that are highly beneficial to commercial industries.
Physicist John Daugman received an NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award in 1988 that supported his research at Harvard University in computer vision and in neural computing. His research on using biological strategies in computational vision laid the foundation for significant breakthroughs in pattern recognition, particularly iris recognition.
Iris recognition uses mathematical pattern-recognition techniques developed by Daugman to automatically identify individuals based on the complex and random patterns visible, from some distance, in their irises--the colored area that surrounds the pupil of a person's eye.
Daugman's award supported his research on mathematical algorithms for image analysis and encoding using wavelets, which are the basis of all of today's commercially available iris recognition systems.
These systems are used by millions of people in countries around the world for a variety of security and identification purposes. In addition, some national ID systems are based on this technology.
"The impact of these innovations demonstrates the economic and societal benefits of NSF's investments in fundamental research," said NSF Assistant Director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering Farnam Jahanian.