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The developer of Seadragon Photosynth, and Bing Maps Augment Reality will join machine learning group

After seven years with Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), Blaise Agüera y Arcas, 38, has left for Google Inc. (GOOG).  The departure is raising eyebrows, given Google's history of poaching top talent from Microsoft.  Mr. Agüera y Arcas -- who created 2D and 3D data decomposition, delivery, and rendering algorithms -- had already played a pivotal role at Microsoft, earning the "distinguished engineer" tag.

I. Beginnings

This is not the first major move for Mr. Agüera y Arcas, though.  Born in Mexico City, Mexico in 1975, as a young man he was fascinated with science, and soon would develop a love for computer programming.  As early as age six he began to dabble with electronics and would go on to teach himself computer coding, despite lacking formal education in the field. 

He told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2010, "My attraction has never been to computers per se, but to the fact that they offer a highly leveraged way to invent magic."

Blaise Agüera y Arca
Blaise Agüera y Arca [Image Source: Flickr]

His creative drive led him to apply to the prestigious Department of Physics at Princeton University in New Jersey.  According to the Bloomberg Businessweek profile he did not take a single computer science course during his collegiate studies despite spending much of his undergraduate research effort on writing code.  He taught himself everything he needed to know.  Prior to graduation he worked for a year in a software engineer position with Real-Time Geometry (RTG) in 1996-1997, a company that would later become part of MetaTools, then Viewpoint.com. 

By the time he left RTG in 1997, Mr. Agüera y Arcas was already developing his area of algorithmic expertise -- decomposing 2D and 3D scenes into highly compressed images, with selective zoom levels.  By the time he graduated in 1998 he already held several graphics technology patents. 

His Princeton physics advisor -- Professor Ingrid Daubechies, a former Bell Labs luminary who is cited as a co-inventor of wavelet theory -- convinced him to briefly dabble in doctoral research after graduation.  But the allure of the private sector was too great and the doctoral studies were put on indefinite hiatus.  According to a Microsoft profile, Professor Daubechies still occasionally drops his former student a line, asking him when he will turn in his thesis.

Blaise Agüera y Arca
Blaise Agüera y Arca is seen here working on Bing Maps Augment Reality in 2010 at Live Labs.
[Image Source: Torque Magazine]

Around that time he met his future wife -- Adrienne Fairhall, Ph.D -- at a neural network circuitry class at The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), a research center near Princeton. 

At the time Professor Fairhall -- born in Australia -- had just finished her doctorate in theoretical physics at the Weizman Institute of Science in Israel and was working as a postdoctoral researcher at the NEC Research Institute, a collaboration between Princeton University and Japan's NEC Corp. (TYO:6701).  She would go on to collaborate with her former husband on "com­pu­ta­tional neu­ro­science projects, focused on the rela­tion­ship between the phys­i­cal descrip­tion of excitable mem­branes and their com­pu­ta­tional prop­er­ties."

II. Startup and Microsoft Years

In 2003 Mr. Agüera y Arcas founded Sand Codex, which would eventually lead him on a path to Microsoft. The next year proved a whirlwind of change: his new wife found out she was pregnant with their first child, and subsequently locked down a faculty position at the University of Washington (UW).

So Mr. Agüera y Arcas relocated his new imaging software startup to Seattle, Washington, renaming it Seadragon.  He would spend the two years developing the software's seamless zoom technology for extremely large images, scoring millions in venture capital.

Seadragon Deep Zoom
Seadragon was acquired by Microsoft after showing off an early version of Deep Zoom.

The work drew the interest of Microsoft, which bought him out in 2006, folding the company into the freshly created Live Labs.  Over the next few years the Seadragon's zoom technology was integrated into Microsoft's Silverlight 2 platform and Bing Maps software.

In 2007 he gave a "jaw dropping" TED talk, where he not only highlighted the technical achievements of Seadragon, but a brand new software -- Photosynth.


Photosynth integrated Seadragon's patented zoom technology with a new image processing twist -- it used color data to form crude 3D models from most photographs allowing you to stitch together 2D images in unprecedented ways.  The project started as a school project of Noah Snavely, a UW computer graduate student; he would eventually go on to teach at Cornell University. 

Photosynth
Photosynth transforms 2D photos into 3D scenes for manipulation and merging.
[Image Source: CNN/Microsoft]

Following Mr. Agüera y Arcas' TED talk, buzz around him grew fast.  The next year at age 33, he was named one of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Technology Review's "Innovators Under 35".  In 2010 he gave another well-received TED talk, showing off Bing Maps' new Augmented Reality software, which incorporate algorithms from Seadragon and Photosynth, along with rich information on buildings, landmarks, businesses, and more.  He described the project as "wikifying the world".  He also helped develop Microsoft's facial animation/modeling software.


Photosynth is now part of the showpiece "core apps" set in Windows 8.1

III. A New (Mountain) View

It is unclear whether Mr. Agüera y Arcas' decision to leave Microsoft had anything to do with the company's recent leadership overhauls and/or the upcoming departure of CEO Steve Ballmer, who had run the company for the last 13 years.  But it's clear that the move is not as contentious (not yet, at least) as some past departures that lead to legal battles between the software firms.

The New York Times' Nick Wingfield quotes Adam Sohn, a spokesman for Microsoft, as saying of the departing engineer, "He was a great colleague and we wish him the best in his future endeavors."

In his family blog "Style is Violence", Mr. Agüera y Arcas wrote that the move was "overwhelming" and that he felt "very lucky".  He writes:

Nick Wing­field at the New York Times just broke the news that I’m going to Google.  On one hand, of course this is tremen­dously excit­ing; Google is a com­pany of grand ambi­tions and bril­liant peo­ple.  On the other hand it has been hard— very hard— to detach emo­tion­ally from Microsoft.  The company’s lead­er­ship has been con­sis­tently good to me over these past eight years, and it has been a time filled with cre­ativ­ity and growth and good friends.  It’s painful to leave behind so many won­der­ful ongo­ing projects, and even more so to leave behind such a great team.

The hard­est deci­sion of my life.

Thank You Ellen
(This image was posted to summarize his thoughts.)
[Image Source: Ellen Forney]

At Google he will join the machine learning group, presumably moving to the company's Mountain View headquarters in Calif.

Google HQ
Google's Mountain View campus  [Image Source: Bernard Andre]

He will work in the fast-expanding machine learning group, a group which focuses on images search and context.  He may even get to play with some quantum computers if he's really lucky.

One pressing question is how much of the intellectual property behind Seadragon Mr. Agüera y Arcas owns.  Depending on the answer, we could see some of the same impressive features in Photosynth and Bing Maps Augment Reality ported into Google Maps.  Google has already showed off virtual tour software that is similar to Bing Maps AR -- it may lean on its newly acquired graphics mastermind to improve that software which is currently somewhat choppy when rendered in a browser.

Sources: Style is Violence, The New York Times, TED Profile, Microsoft Faculty Summit Profile



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RE: Wondering
By kleinma on 12/18/2013 12:10:26 PM , Rating: 5
What makes you think Microsoft had any say in him leaving? Google probably made him a really good offer and allowed him more freedoms in a new position, and he sounds like the guy who is always looking for the next thing to challenge him, and he isn't a fanboy who has to love one company and hate another. He sounds like a guy who loves technology and doesn't care which company is feeding his coffers to create new things.

Plus, according to the article he taught himself coding coding, which is way harder than just coding, so he has that going for him.


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