Edwin Hancock

Edwin Hancock

It is fitting that, in a year when the British Machine Vision Conference is at York, the BMVA Distinguished Fellow should be Edwin Hancock. That is because Edwin is a Professor in the Computer Science department at York, where he has pursued a long and distinguished career. Like many vision researchers in its early days, Edwin’s first degree and PhD are in Physics — he will explain in his own words how he was bitten by the vision bug. Bitten he certainly was, because he has published around 700 papers, encompassing areas such as graph algorithms, shape from shading, texture, shape analysis, object recognition and machine learning. However, these are only part of Edwin’s contribution. He has played a big part in journals and conferences, with a long-standing involvement in Pattern Recognition in particular. He has also been editor of the IET’s Computer Vision journal.

For the BMVA, Edwin’s most visible achievements have been chairing BMVC on its first visit to York in 1994, and then representing the BMVA on the Governing Board of the International Association for Pattern Recognition (the IAPR) for well over a decade. However, behind the scenes, Edwin has consistently provided sage and helpful advice to the BMVA’s Executive Committee for about 20 years. Edwin’s contributions have already been recognised. He held a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award during 2009–-2014, he is a Fellow of the IAPR, the BCS, the IET, the Institute of Physics –— and now he joins the select band of recipients of Fellowship of the BMVA.

Adrian F Clark (BMVA chair)
Roy Davies (DF Committee chair)

Acceptance Speech

Thirty years ago to the day, I was on a train travelling to Bristol to present my very first vision paper at the Second Alvey Vision Conference.

About a year earlier I had switched fields from high energy physics to work with Josef Kittler. At the time it seemed a bit of a step in the dark, and perhaps even a step down from what seemed the more glamourous world of particle physics. I had worked on the first experiment to measure charmed particle lifetimes at SLAC (where the Physics Department had an infestation of Nobel Laureates), my PhD grandfather had discovered the pion (and got the Nobel Prize for it), the W and Z had been discovered 3 years earlier and the Higgs was expected soon (or so they thought). I was off to mix in different company for the first time. Expectations were not high. But I was nervous – this was to be my first conference presentation. In particle physics only the bosses got to give talks.

We, on the other hand, manned night shifts running the apparatus, spent long hours in darkened rooms visually scanning bubble chamber film, crawled inside powerful magnets (which were too delicate to power off) and wrestled with a pneumatic monster called the Hough-Powell (or huffpuff) device which temperamentally scanned for particle tracks on film.

My move from particle physics had been made possible by the Alvey Programme. This was a massive injection of cash into computing and AI, to revive UK research in these areas. The subject of AI had been all but killed off in the UK by the Lighthill Report, and Alvey was a desperate attempt to breathe life back into it. The field of computer vision had done well, with several well-funded long-term projects. The two largest of these were the so-called IKBS 3D Vision Project, which comprised GEC, Edinburgh, Sheffield, IBM and Sussex, and aimed to recover 3D shape from stereopsis and motion. The second was MMI007, which aimed to recognise 3D objects from 2D images, and comprised British Aerospace, Marconi, Bristol, Reading, RSRE and Surrey. The two projects were presenting their first results at the conference, and comprised a galaxy of talent including Andrew Blake, Hilary and Bernard Buxton, Bob Fisher, John Frisby, John Illingworth, Josef Kittler, John Mayhew, Dave Murray, Geoff Sullivan and Andrew Zisserman, to name just a few. Mike Brady had just returned from MIT, and was on the lookout for new talent to build a group at Oxford. The invited speakers were Shimon Ullman and Don Geman. Guy Scott won the best paper prize for his work on structure-from-motion, and later moved from Sussex to Oxford to join Mike, before embarking in a career in politics and becoming President of Zambia. This was primordial mass of talent from which the UK vision community was born, with its hallmarks of pragmatism and rigour. After all, the conference was not so bad. They politely received my rushed and garbled talk, too full of equations on handwritten overheads. Old habits die hard. They were a convivial and irreverent lot who drank just as heavily as particle physicists and managed to look bright eyed and bushy tailed the next day. Many were also refugees from exciting but crowded areas of physics. I came across graphs and shape-from-shading for the first time. As they say, be careful what you allow into your head, it will find its way out one day.

I won’t bore you with details of the intervening thirty years (it’s extensively documented in the literature). Twenty-eight of them have been spent waiting for the Higgs to appear: twenty-five here in York. I cannot believe how productive those years have been. This is of course due to the patience, generosity of spirit and sheer braininess of my academic colleagues and research students. Not just that, but their willingness to embark on intellectual journeys into the unknown and the alacrity with which they engaged with whatever challenges confronted us.

This fellowship is an exceptional honour, and if it is not a contradiction, I do feel genuinely humbled, honoured and proud to receive it. It is of course a distinction not just for me, but for the colleagues, and in particular research students with whom I have worked over the years. Thank you very much indeed.

Professor Edwin Hancock
University of York