In the early 1980s, Henrique “Rico” Malvar was just starting out in his academic career. He’d never lived outside of Brazil and had a wife, a young daughter, and an assistant professorship in electrical engineering. But he was about to head into the uncharted waters of a life in the United States.
To hear him speak, it’s hard to imagine that the energetic Chief Scientist of Microsoft Research and LIDS Advisory Committee member ever had doubts about his future or his ability. But before his success at Microsoft, before his influential work in signal processing, and before his graduate study at MIT, Rico had to face a critical question: “Can I really leave a developing country, with a family, and go to the U.S. – to the best school in the U.S. – and have a chance to be successful?” Ultimately, Rico took that chance, and the answer turned out to be a resounding yes.
Rico can trace his interest in electrical engineering all the way back to his first electronics construction kit, given to him by his father. Eight-year-old Rico was amazed and intrigued. As he grew, he worked on more complex projects, like amplifiers and sound systems. By the time he reached college he knew what he wanted to be. Electrical engineering was the natural choice for his undergraduate and masters degrees. After working for a few years as an assistant professor, the time came for Rico to apply for a PhD. He sent out applications to a number of schools, but his acceptance letter from MIT was the first one to arrive, and that letter was the only one he needed to see.
Rico’s first impression of MIT was equal parts excitement and caution. He recalls two main thoughts: “I’m glad I’m here” and “this isn’t going to be easy.” Rico had always been the best at what he did. But MIT is full of bests: valedictorians, academic polyglots, and star performers from around the world. Rico had to learn to compete and thrive in MIT’s elite community. But even in tough times, Rico says, he saw his struggle as evidence that he’d come to the right place.
In Professor Dave Staelin’s group as part of MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics, Rico worked on signal processing problems. Specifically, he worked on signal processing as it applies to compression of digital signals. “We already had the vision,” Rico says, “It was clear that someday digital storage and communication would be cheap enough that it would be common for people to have pictures and music and videos all in digital format.”
But digital media files can contain a large amount of information. For example, a single three-megapixel image has over three million picture elements, or pixels. Each one of those pixels also contains information about intensity and color components of that point in the picture. The number of pieces of information grows quickly.
Instead of laboriously copying and transmitting each and every piece of information about a file, computer systems can compress image files for transfer. Rico’s work included the study of a type of compression known as transform coding, in which the image is analyzed and then reduced to a more simple, but accurate enough, version of itself.
At the time, that process was primarily accomplished by chopping an image up into smaller tiles, encoding each tile, transmitting the information, and then reassembling the image at the destination. But the process wasn’t perfect. When you break an image down into squares and encode each square separately, the edges might become slightly mismatched. Even a small mismatch becomes obvious in the reassembled image. Additionally, any noise in the signal or data loss may result in obvious artifacts--tiny blocks misplaced or missing in the final image.
One of Rico’s lab mates, Philippe Cassereau, had proposed a method of resolving the problem by overlapping the blocks to eliminate mismatches and reduce the effect of noise or information loss. But Philippe’s work, though interesting, couldn’t be used for large matrices. Rico took the idea to the next level and, as part of his thesis work, developed a practical and robust method of applying the idea. This method of overlapped orthogonal transforms soon came to be used in multimedia formats, Internet telephony, DSL modems, and other applications.
With his PhD from a world-class university in hand, Rico went back to Brazil and resumed teaching. He was promoted to associate professor and, if he had done nothing more than continue on his trajectory, he probably would have had a successful career there. But instead, he received a tempting phone call from Massachusetts. Some of Rico’s old lab mates had started a videoconferencing company called PictureTel; one of the first videoconferencing companies in existence. They called to tell him they were searching for a new director of research, and they invited him to apply.
Rico had always considered himself an engineer. He had always planned to be a professor or researcher. But now he found himself contemplating a transition out of academia and into industry, furthermore, into a management role, and another move for his growing family. He and his wife weighed the options, and decided to move back to the U.S. At PictureTel, Rico learned to direct his team and honed his understanding of how fundamental research turns into products and services. Along the way, Rico started to pick up on little telltale signs of his success. Colleagues started seeking his advice and bringing him in on projects.
In 1997, Rico became interested in doing broader work and took an opportunity to join Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington research lab. He’s been with the company ever since, and risen through the ranks, from a Principal Researcher role, to Managing Director of Microsoft Research Redmond, and finally to his current role as Chief Scientist.
These days, Rico doesn’t have time for much research, though he publishes when he can – usually a few times a year. Primarily, he focuses on directing the research of others, encouraging his scientists and helping spur them on toward the development of the next big thing. Like any company, Microsoft has strategic goals. But instead of strictly directing work on specific products, Rico and the rest of the management team put the focus on advancing technology in general. They give their researchers the chance to pursue projects they find interesting, challenging, and promising.
“The best motivation people can have is not money or promotion but really challenging their own mind,” said Rico, “Prove to myself that I can do X. That’s when people do the most interesting things and have the biggest accomplishments.” At any rate, Rico says, Microsoft has so many products and developing technologies that almost any research focus will have some application or value to the company. Management does, of course, have some oversight. As projects develop, the management team prunes the output; directing more resources toward projects that hold the most promise and letting other projects take a back seat.
As a member of the LIDS Advisory Committee, Rico helps guide the direction of LIDS research with a much gentler nudge. He’s known Alan Willsky since he first took a class taught by the LIDS Director. When Alan invited Rico to be a member of the newly formed advisory group, Rico was happy to join. As part of the committee, he offers advice and opinions on the lab’s latest collaborations, research, and other kinds of development. The role also gives Rico a convenient excuse to visit MIT – a place that he loves but doesn’t see as often as he’d like.
Looking back on his career thus far, Rico is amazed to see the technologies that his work has touched. He sees the result of signal processing work everywhere: in the voice recognition and noise cancellation of cell phone software, in face and location recognition in image processing, in the motion detection and analysis of video game systems. The work that he’s done, in a small way, helped all those things become part of the modern world. Rico recommends that young researchers remember the bigger picture and understand why, at a high level, they’re doing what they do, even when working focused on intensely technical problems.
“This is a personal choice, and not everyone needs to be this way, but try to do important stuff,” says Rico, “When you pick out problems, try to see beyond solving the math or beyond solving the algorithm. Understand how and why what you’re doing matters, and what might come of it.” It is a philosophy that has served Rico, and his groundbreaking work, very well.