Logo: University of Southern California

VIPTRON: The Machine that Could See

USC Viterbi alumnus Val Schnabl invented an object scanner in 1963
by: Katie McKissick
March 30, 2015 —
VIPTRON, Visual Interpretation of Patterns Through Electronics

It sat in storage for 50 years. A machine that could see and identify objects and patterns, the VIPTRON was built by USC Viterbi alumnus Val Schnabl (M.S. EE ’69) when he was just 17 years old, and it would start him on a lifelong, successful engineering career.

It was 1963, and Schnabl was a senior at Brookfield Central High School in Wisconsin. As always, he planned to enter the science fair, where he had won prizes in earlier years, such as for a robot car that could maneuver around obstacles. But he had an even more ambitious project in mind that year.

 Val Schnabl
Val Schnabl demonstrating his robot car that maneuvered around obstacles in 1962. Photo courtesy of Val Schnabl.

“I decided to build a machine that could see and identify objects, patterns and letters,” said Schnabl. “It took many months to think of how to do it, design it and then build it. Back then there wasn't anything like it out there.”

To use the device, an object was placed in front of the “eyeball” of the machine, and clusters of photocells centered on the object and tracked its outline relative to its center. It then produced a graph for the shape with the object’s varying radius on the y-axis and rotation angle on the x-axis. The result was a complete radius versus angle plot that was unique for each shape.

After generating this distinct graph signature for an object, the machine compared it to its database of graphs and could find a match, or the closest match if it hadn’t “seen” that particular object before. 

 Sciencefair VIPRTON
Val Schnabl at the National Science Fair in Albuquerque, 1963. Photo courtesy of Val Schnabl.

“The main thing is that it worked,” Schnabl said. “It correctly identified objects, patterns, letters, etc., by looking at them. That was 50 years ago. Nowadays, of course, the same thing is done using optical scanners and computers with special software.”

He called it VIPTRON for Visual Interpretation of Patterns Through Electronics. It took months for Schnabl to build his machine, including a two-week absence from school. And while he missed the deadline for the local science fair, his teachers advanced him to the state science fair based on his previous successes. There, at the Wisconsin State Science Fair at Marquette University in 1963, he won first place and a full-tuition scholarship to Marquette University.

Additionally, Schnabl represented Wisconsin at the National Science Fair in Albuquerque, N.M., where he won a summer residency at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, as a guest of the United States Air Force.

Schnabl graduated with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Marquette University in 1967 and quickly got a job at Hughes Aircraft Company with a fellowship that allowed him to attend USC for his master’s degree in electrical engineering.