CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Thomas Huang, a pioneering researcher in the field of image compression and an influential educator at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, died Saturday. In his long career as a professor of electrical and computer engineering, Huang was ranked among the world’s most influential researchers and mentored more than 100 students. He was 83.
As an educator, mentor and researcher, he was awarded the highest recognition in three distinct fields: signal processing, pattern recognition and computer vision—an enormous accomplishment, demonstrating his commitment to interdisciplinary research.
“This is an amazing aspect of his research,” said Zhi-Pei Liang, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and a co-chair of the Integrative Imaging research theme at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at Illinois. He worked with Huang for many years. “Most researchers are happy to get to the top of a narrow field, but Tom has impacted three areas. That shows how influential his career has been.”
The Maybelle Leland Swanlund Endowed Chair Emeritus in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Illinois, Huang contributed to 21 books and more than 600 journal and conference papers. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, Chinese Academy of Engineering, Chinese Academy of Sciences and Academia Sinica.
He led the charge in the field of image compression – one of his most significant contributions was developing a method of deriving a relationship between 2D and 3D imaging. Recent advances in 3D urban-modeling programs, such as Google’s StreetView, have foundations in his work.
Huang’s visionary work early in his career helped shape current practices in imaging. Before his work, there were very few ways to store an image: photographic negatives and video cassettes. His work was instrumental in developing compression standards for CDs, for example.
“Because of Tom’s pioneering work, there are now a seemingly endless number of ways to capture, store and share images,” Liang said. “He has contributed more than anyone else to the technical underpinning of current international fax, image and video-compression standards. Without these standards, it simply would not be possible for us to store and transmit the huge amounts of multimedia data that all of us encounter on a daily basis.”
Huang retired from teaching in 2014 but continued as an active researcher with a focus on deep learning, or the ability of computers to attribute layers to images. An algorithm could examine an image of a person, for instance, and find a face, arms and legs. It could then clarify further by attributing facial features, like a nose, eyes and ears. He hoped to develop self-sorting image algorithms that could identify and categorize images without any need for human labeling.
He played a significant role in the preliminary building committees at the Beckman Institute, and, when the doors opened in 1989, Huang eagerly moved his lab to the new facility, forming the Image Formation and Processing Group.
Huang also was affiliated with the Coordinated Sciences Laboratory.
“Tom was an inspiration to his students, not only through his lifetime achievement and his contributions to science, but also how he brought so much passion, energy and creativity to the work. He was a role model to many of us, and his work has impacted our society significantly, far beyond his papers, his books and his many prestigious awards indicate,” Liang said.
Huang credited his students for his contributions.
“The one thing I have found over the years is—whatever I have accomplished, it’s entirely due to my students, so my career has really been the blessing of great students,” Huang said in 2016. “Mentoring students is the accomplishment I am most proud of.”
He received a Doctor of Science in 1963 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and stayed at MIT as a faculty member for 10 years. In 1973, he moved to Purdue University and then arrived at the U. of I. in 1980.
Huang’s legacy will live through a new Thomas and Margaret Huang Endowed Professorship in Signal Processing and Data Science in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the U. of I., set up by his family.