MERL Looking Haggard: Ramesh Raskar Leaving Mitsubishi For MIT Media Lab; Two Others Also Depart

The surge of major researchers leaving Cambridge’s Mitsubushi Electric Research Laboratory, which we first reported in July, was only the beginning of what’s looking like a steady flow.

Today, we have three more departures to report:

• Ramesh Raskar, an expert in computational photography who will join the Media Lab in the spring of 2008 as an associate professor of media arts and sciences.

• Kathy Ryall, former leader of MERL’s Diamond Touch project, which created a widely emulated multi-user, touch-activated tabletop display. Ryall has joined BAE Systems in Burlington, MA.

• Jonathan Westhues, whose work at MERL focused on building-wide sensor networks, is leaving for a position at Microsoft. At the SIGGRAPH 2007 conference in San Diego, Westhues presented work on a system called Buzz that allowed users to visualize the locations of crowds on the conference floor. Westhues is also famous for exposing security flaws in Verichip’s implantable RFID chips.

The latest trio of MERL departures join two previous waves that followed the firing of former research director Joe Marks in October 2006. The first exodus included Paul Dietz, James Frankel, Wojciech Matusik, Baback Moghaddam, Hanspeter Pfister, Chuck Rich, Candy Sidner, and Benjamin Vigoda, all of whom we reported on in late July and early August. Then, in late August we reported that Matusik and two more MERL researchers, Paris Smaragdis and Shai Avidan, had joined the Newton, MA, office of Adobe Systems.

Of the latest departures, Raskar is perhaps the highest-profile—and he was one of the MERL researchers most hotly pursued by outside institutions.

Raskar first became widely known for his work between 1998 and 2003 on systems that meld the images from multiple video projectors into a single seamless image, even on a curved surface such as a dome. More recently, his experiments using specialized aperture masks and digitally timed exposures to selectively block the light that hits a digital camera’s CCD sensor have shown that, in essence, less is more: the less light a camera receives, the more easily the information from the CCD can be reprocessed to achieve effects such as motion deblurring and focus deblurring. Raskar is described by former MERL colleague Baback Moghaddam as “brilliant” and “by many people’s estimation, the rising star in computer graphics.”

At the Media Lab, where he already has an online faculty profile, Raskar is expected to lead the new “Camera Culture” research group, which will work on new types of cameras with “unusual optical elements, programmable illumination, digital wavelength control, and femtosecond analysis of light transport.” The group will look at tools to “decompose pixels into perceptually meaningful components,” according to the site.

Media Lab director Frank Moss says he is “extremely excited” about Raskar’s hiring, for several reasons. “First, his research interests are truly transformational at the human level—capturing and sharing the visual experience beyond traditional photography and video. Ramesh envisions game-changing approaches such as an imperceptible wearable ‘second skin’ and novel cameras for capturing human motion in multiple dimensions. Also, Ramesh is a hands-on type of researcher that will try anything by building it—this is a super addition to our ‘build to learn and learn to build’ culture and will be a big hit with both students and sponsors.”

Moss compares Raskar to Ed Boyden, another recent Media Lab faculty addition who focuses on non-invasive brain-machine interfaces. Boyden and Raskar are both “right at the intersection of the biological, physical and information sciences, the hot spot for future innovation that will improve the human condition and drive commercial innovation in the next decade,” says Moss.

Raskar himself declined to comment for this story. But Joe Marks, the former director of MERL’s research wing, tells Xconomy that Raskar “was among the top talent in the old MERL Research group.” Several industrial labs and universities were competing to hire Raskar away from MERL, Marks says. “I’m sure the MIT Media Lab folks are thrilled to get him, and I’m glad he has landed at a place where he can continue to pursue his research agenda with great colleagues and students.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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