Four engineers who made the 'selfie' possible share $1.7 million prize

A visitor takes a selfie in an art installation called The Beach as she "floats" on polyethylene balls as part of the annual Sydney Festival on Jan 6, 2017.
A visitor takes a selfie in an art installation called The Beach as she "floats" on polyethylene balls as part of the annual Sydney Festival on Jan 6, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON - Four engineers whose work turning light into digital signals resulted in "selfies" becoming a global phenomenon have won the highest international engineering prize.

The £1 million (S$1.7 million) prestigious Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering has gone to Michael Tompsett, Eric Fossum, George Smith and Nobukazu Teranishi.

Their work - which was spread over three decades - has changed the world and how we see it, allowing the creation of digital cameras that are cheap and small enough to fit on a fingertip, and whose pictures can be shared instantly through the Internet, said Britain's Telegraph.

Winners (from left) Michael Tompsett, Eric Fossum and Nobukazu Teranishi put their creation to good use. PHOTO: QE PRIZE

The Royal Academy of Engineering judging panel said the inventors' work had "revolutionised" the world - although one of the winners told the BBC he was "frustrated" to see people taking selfies with his invention.

Without their work Skyping, selfies, computer games and streamed digital films would not be possible.

The imaging technologies have also helped capture stunning views of planets and distant stars and galaxies, said the BBC

Lord Brown of Madingley, who chairs the biennial prize - which was first awarded four years ago to Sir Tim Berners Lee for inventing the Internet - praised the “international collaboration” of this year’s winners, adding they had touched the lives of people worldwide, and created a new form of communication.

“They have revolutionised the way we capture and analyse visual information. We deliberately chose an engineering invention that is sustainable and has a proper commercial application,” he added, noting the digital cameras have applications as diverse as science, astronomy, medicine - even driverless cars.

A man takes a selfie with Switzerland's Roger Federer as he holds his Australian Open trophy upon his arrival at Zurich airport, Jan 31, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

More than 100 cameras are manufactured a second around the world using technology developed by the winners, with three billion images taken on them shared every day, said the Telegraph.

The four winners’ breakthroughs were the charged coupled device (CCD), the pinned photodiode (PPD) and the complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS).

The digital image revolution started in the 1970s with the CCD, which converts light into an electrical signal, meaning an image can be stored digitally. Dr Smith and Dr Tompsett pioneered this technology while working at Bell Laboratories in the US.

Prof Teranishi invented the PPD while at electronics giant NEC the following decade. The PPD miniaturised light-capturing pixels, resulting in more detailed images. In the early 1990s while working at Nasa, Dr Fossum came up with CMOS, which led to the creation of “cameras on a microchip”, further reducing their size and cost.

British-born Dr Smith, who worked in TV originally, had an unusual prop to motivate him to produce a small camera.

“A colleague put a small lens in a perspex box the size of a matchbox to give us an idea of what we were aiming for,” he said. “He also put a dead fly in there too as a recognition that there were bugs in the system.”

Despite the impact his work has had, Dr Smith said he was never aware of its world-changing implications as he was “too busy with research”, the Telegraph reported.

Dr Fossum added: “The impact of it did not sink in until I saw people walking around taking pictures with their phone - that was when I realised the enormity of it, that everyone on the planet was using it.”

The winners said that unlike their inventions, the shared prize fund is unlikely to change their lives. However, it could change the lives of others: they are planning to use the money to fund scholarships intended to encourage young people - and particularly girls - into engineering.

“Engineers like building things and being creative,” said Dr Smith, according to the Telegraph. “That is what they do - we have got to get the momentum of that to encourage people into engineering.”