Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman is a professor at the University of Washington and a Research Scientist at Facebook. At our LDV Vision Summit 2017 she spoke about how and why she evolved her research into a company called Dreambit which she then sold to Facebook.
I'm supposed to give a talk about how to combine academia with industry and so, I chose to do it by telling three stories. I'm both a research scientist at Facebook and a professor at University of Washington. And so, I will make the talk super over simplified and humorous.
Story number one, I go to The Weizmann Institute of Science to be a grad student and my advisor is Ronen Basri. The first problem that I decided to work on is, I want to be able to take a single photo of a person and reconstruct it through the 3 dimensional shape of her face. It kind of makes sense that we should be able to do it, because as humans when we look at the face - based on the shading, based on the prior knowledge of faces that we have, we can imagine how she looks from different sides, just from a single photo. So, I wanted to create an algorithm that can do it automatically. And it didn't exist when I started my grad studies, so I thought it's a worthwhile problem.
I worked on it and we created a math for doing it from a single photo, and the cool part about the math is that I could apply it to anything. I could reconstruct Mona Lisa, I could reconstruct Clint Eastwood and so on. And we published a paper and compared reason at conference, and I was so, so excited. Here's the business part.
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I wanted to show the results so I went to my family, to my husband Elliott and my brother Mike and I said, "Check this out! The results I got are so cool." And we started talking and we came up with some business ideas, it was 2006. We said "oh, it can be used in Second Life, and it can be used as avatars in games and all that."
And my brother said "I know this guy, that knows this VC that is going to come from the US next week, should we just talk with him?" And I said "Yes, sure. Let's do it." And so, the VC came from the US and we pitched to him the idea, and he said, "well, that sounds cool. Here's half a million, let's make a business out of it.” And so we were so excited, that we went to celebrate, we were like "oh my gosh this is a paper, we can do a business, a startup". So we went to celebrate in Mexico.
"If you want to swim with the sharks, you have to swim faster - you do not do vacations in Mexico."
While in Mexico, we were doing Skype conversations with a vista firm and negotiating and so on, and at one point they ask us, "where are you?" And we were like, "we're in Mexico". And they freaked out, and I still remember the quote that he said. He said "If you want to swim with the sharks, you have to swim faster - you do not do vacations in Mexico." At that point, it seemed like “maybe I'm not ready to swim with the sharks quite yet,” and it also didn't help that they wanted more than 51 percent of the company. The non-existent business. So we decided not to create a company, learned a bit about VCs, wrote more papers, and I got my PhD. That was exciting.
Story number two, I finished my PhD, I wanted to do my postdoc at University of Washington. I came to Seattle working with Steve Seitz. The first problem that we wanted to solve, I said, "Okay, so I've been working on this single photo idea of reconstruction, but actually every one of us has so many photos out there. And so it's not just one photo, we're going to have bigger and bigger collections, so wouldn't it be amazing just to visualize those big collections somehow?"
What existed at that time was just slideshows, right? And this is just a random showing of photos, not super exciting. So I started playing with big collections, and I found out that if I focus on the person and just align by the location of the eyes, I already get a really cool effect. I kind of see her grow in front of my eyes. And there is something interesting about visualizing the person through photos.
Eventually we thought it was really cool, and we developed the algorithm further. It was taking into account facial expressions and the head pose and so on. And I started showing those results to Steve, and he loved everything. So, then at that time, it was 2010 or 2011, Steve went to spend time with Google, and he said, "hey this looks so cool and practical, how about I'll show it to my boss at Google."
The boss at Google said, "This is interesting, but let's see on my daughter’s photos." So I did it, I tried it out on his daughter’s photos, and he liked it. Then, I went to spend half a year at Google and with an amazing team we did ship it. The final product was, with the click of a button you could create face movies.
That was exciting, I learned how to make a product, and the product was used by millions. I wrote more papers, I finished my postdoc, and I got a faculty job. I went on the academic market, super competitive, but actually my experience in industry, plus all the papers helped me to get really cool jobs. And it helped me to get my dream job, where I could stay as faculty at UW, same place where I did my postdoc.
Story number three, I'm at University of Washington, but now as a professor. And I established my own group, I have students and we work on all sorts of cool projects and publish papers and so on, but in my free time, kind of as a joke, but I'm deeply concerned about a problem. I want to see will black hair fit me? But I don't want to go and dye my hair before I know if it looks good.
I started kind of as a toy project to render myself with black hair to see how it may look like, and then I continued to render myself with curly hair. And I started building this system, and I built it in a way that it looks like an image search engine, where I could type anything, for example, "India", and imagine how I would look. Or I could even go back in time and type "1930" and imagine how I would look in the 1930's. I kept going and could type any query, different hairstyles, and colors, shaved and traditional, clothing and so on.
I published a paper about it in SIGGRAPH, it was a single author paper, and it got in, it got accepted. It looked a success story, but I kept working on it and my husband was like, "why are you working on that so hard?" And I said, "I don't know it just seems like a cool, I feel like there is a business around it, I want to establish a company." And so he says, "It does seem exciting, so how about we do it together?" And I said, "Yeah, let's do it." So, we created this company, immediately became the CEO and the CTO and after our kids would go to sleep, we would code.
We bought a ton of equipment to put in our basement and we created a real time system that lets you do what I just described and we're ready to let people in to try it. SIGGRAPH came, and I gave a demo during a talk with them and a bunch of companies, big companies, got interested. SIGGRAPH is known for its parties, and Michael Cohen at Facebook, Steve Seitz at Google, and me were talking. And then Steve just kind of randomly says, "Hey, did you know that Ira has a company now?" And Michael Cohen's like "What?! This is interesting," then one thing leads to another and the company's acquired.
So, I'm at Facebook plus UW now. And it's really fun to do, they're ten minutes away in Seattle. And some lessons were kind of interesting for myself and maybe will be useful for you. Research, academic research means becoming a specialist in a very, very narrow field. And that could be considered as a bad thing maybe because you're in some particular niche, you're maybe stuck. But on the other hand, the way I see it, it's a unique opportunity to know when technology is right for a product, and you're actually in a unique space to do it before everyone else can. Before everyone else realizes.
Making products that millions use is super fun, but I find it really just exciting to just create something that I will use first. Because if everyone else will not like it, then at least one person likes it. Connections you make during school, postdoc, and jobs are the best. Do not forget to go to parties.
Watch Professor Ira Kemelmacher-Schlizerman's keynote at our LDV Vision Summit 2017 below and checkout other keynotes on our videos page.
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