Date Posted: 2/06/2006

Computer Science Professor Steve Marschner is the recipient of a 2006 Sloan Research Fellowship that recognizes his work in computer graphics.

"My research in computer graphics is basically asking, 'Why do materials look the way they do?'" said Marschner. "Getting clear answers to this question is really fundamental to realistic computer graphics, because to render accurate images you have to have accurate models for light reflection. For example, we can see that a plastic table with a wood grain printed on it looks different from a wooden table - the two materials just have different ways of reflecting light. But with most rendering systems you can only talk about the plastic table, and that's the closest you can get to rendering wood. At least until last year, when we published a paper on reflection from wood that explains how to capture that difference. In the rendering systems we have today, the quality of the models for the materials you're rendering is often the limiting factor on the realism you can get - so it's crucial to make progress in this area."

According to the Sloan Foundation, the award is intended to enhance the careers of the very best young faculty members in specified fields of science. Currently a total of 116 fellowships are awarded annually in seven fields: chemistry, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, computer science, economics, mathematics, neuroscience, and physics. The Foundation awarded 14 fellowships in computer science this year.

"Steve's research is a showpiece of model-building because of the way he assimilates terabytes of refection data," said Charlie Van Loan, chair of the computer science department. "He has taken rendering to a new level by the way he combines the physics of light with razor-sharp numerical computing. We are grateful to the Sloan Foundation for recognizing this kind of research talent."

Marschner obtained his Sc.B. degree in mathematics and computer science from Brown University in 1993 and his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1998. He held research positions at Hewlett-Packard Labs, Microsoft Research, and Stanford University before joining the CS faculty in 2002.

Marschner's research in realistic rendering for computer graphics centers around the fundamental question of why materials look the way they do. He is investigating common materials like skin, hair, wood, and cloth to understand and model both the optics of these materials, to allow accurate simulation of their appearance under any lighting, and their mechanical properties, so that their characteristic shapes and motion can be simulated convincingly. These two parts work together to produce realistic images and animations of materials that really look like they are made of the right kind of "stuff."

These models will allow computer graphics practitioners to achieve goals, such as creating realistic virtual human actors, that are currently hampered by the limitations of existing material models. Marschner is also exploring related areas of computer graphics, from image-based modeling and 3D scanning to visual perception.

Recent projects include investigations of light scattering from fibrous materials including human hair and wood, and an efficient method for rendering translucent materials that has been widely implemented by the film effects industry and resulted in an Academy Award for Technical Achievement.