People of ACM - Victor Bahl

February 19, 2015

Victor Bahl directs the Mobility and Networking Research Group at Microsoft Research, where he works on systems and infrastructure problems related to mobile computing, cloud services, wireless systems, data center networks, and enterprise networks. As a Distinguished Scientist, Bahl has developed several important technologies that are in widespread use. Some of his notable contributions include: the first Wi-Fi hotspot network; TV white space network; Wi-Fi indoor location system; mm-wave data center network; wireless virtualization stack; multi-radio mesh, and multi-radio energy conserving systems. He has been awarded over 110 US and international patents for his inventions.

Bahl co-founded SIGMOBILE (ACM's Special Interest Group on Mobility of Systems, Users, Data and Computing). He also founded the MobiSys conference and Mobile Computing and Communications Review journal. He has served as the General Chair of the ACM SIGCOMM and MobiCom conferences.

Bahl received his PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering from University of Massachusetts Amherst and his MS and BS degrees in Electrical Engineering from the University of Buffalo. He was a visiting professor at University College London and Sorbonne Universités - l'université Pierre et Marie Curie in 2014.

A Fellow of ACM, IEEE, and AAAS, Bahl has received several best paper awards, two Open Internet Challenge awards from the FCC, and the Distinguished Service and Outstanding Contributions awards from SIGMOBILE.

Based on your research on improving the energy efficiency in image sensors, how close are you and your colleagues to making continuous mobile vision a reality?

We are getting close, but there is more to do. Energy efficiency is only one of several systems-level problems we have to solve. In parallel we also have to improve the accuracy of vision algorithms, build unobtrusive image sensors, improve natural user interfaces, and address privacy in a manner acceptable to society. The good news is that we are beginning to see a demand that goes beyond augmented reality applications. For example, police officers in London, New York, and Washington will soon have video cameras stitched on to their uniforms. Such developments are motivating researchers to innovate faster and light up new capabilities. Soon we will have systems that can perform real-time vision analysis and provide recommendations to the user on the next course of action. So I feel bullish about continuous mobile vision becoming a mainstream technology a few years from now.

From your perspective, why is it important to meet with Federal Communications Commission officials as part of your research and development effort, as you did in 2010 when you presented your research on white space networking technology?

As researchers and engineers, we love to solve technical problems, but sometimes it is very important to step back and take a holistic view of the overall goal before developing a solution. In the case of white space networking, we needed a technology that would help bridge the digital divide, improve productivity, and expand our nation's economy. But, to build a technology that everyone would accept, I had to be cognizant of the interdependence between government regulations, technology limits, and business ramifications. The FCC is responsible for regulating spectrum use. While they are motivated by economic and societal impact, they tend to set rules conservatively to protect the incumbents. In addition to working within the solution space defined by their rules and constraints, I also had to be sensitive to the cost of the technology. Business investors are skittish when the upside is unclear and the technology is expensive. I knew that I would have to go back and forth between regulators and business leaders, potentially researching and proposing new technologies and policy changes until we found a solution that was acceptable to all. In fact, I believe it was one such meeting with FCC chairman Julius Genachowski in which we demonstrated a fully operational white space network, working within constraints acceptable to industry leaders and government regulators, which led to the historic ruling that opened up over 180 MHz of spectrum for unlicensed use in the United States.

Why do you believe that your job—pursuing untethered research, shepherding brilliant researchers and helping shape Microsoft's long-term vision for network technologies—is one of the best jobs in the industry?

I believe history will judge our generation as the one that connected the world. I feel fortunate that I work in a company that in large part made this possible and has given me the mandate to think further on how we can do even more. I love going to work every day because I love taking on challenging problems with my colleagues, all of whom are super smart and super motivated. Together we work on inventions that connect people and help them improve their lives. I have been emotionally moved after receiving unsolicited compliments from children in remote villages in the world thanking us for getting them connected to the Internet—how cool is that?

As a prolific researcher and founder of prominent international forums and publications serving the mobile computing community, what advice would you give to young people considering careers in computing?

Have a vision for your life and be very deliberate about the problems you work on. Educate yourself and question the assumptions—what made sense previously may not make sense now. Find jobs where you are surrounded with smart people who think critically and have a can-do attitude; they will up your game. The world is ready for technology disruptions, and those who think boldly and operate fearlessly will get us to the next level. Develop great instincts by doing more, take initiatives, and above all persevere.