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James Tompkin Joins Brown CS As Assistant Professor

“We have responsibilities as scientists, and a need for rigor,” says James Tompkin, who joins Brown CS as Assistant Professor this summer. But, watching a video overview of his recent research, the areas of inquiry sometimes surprise. Sophisticated editing of image and video content, new interaction and display devices from light fields, and...animal-shaped glockenspiels? “There’s also space for more fun,” laughs James, “and for the understanding that people are human.”

This understanding is represented in James’s interest in interaction, a thread that runs through almost a decade of research. “I create graphics, vision, and interaction techniques to improve our understanding of the connections within media,” he explains, “to further our ability to edit and explore the visual world.” The interest in interaction may have early origins: as a child, growing up in the London suburbs, he favored Fighting Fantasy non-linear gamebooks, tabletop and computer strategy games like X-COM, and “played tremendously with LEGO”. His father, the headmaster of a local high school, would bring home a succession of clunky, barely-portable computers, “...and then I would break them,” James grins, “as part of the ‘learning process’.”

Combined interests in computation and music spiralled outward from those early days of tinkering, leading to an undergraduate thesis at King’s College London in novel interaction methods for composing music. Later, at University College London, Tompkin’s work with visual computing and his association with architects at the interdisciplinary Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis only heightened his interest in not just the interactive but the tangible. “I like interfaces that exist in the real world,” he says, “and if you want more natural interfaces, you have to build them. A lot of my work is pixel-pushing, but sometimes you want to go into a machine shop and build something.”

After work at the Intel Visual Computing Institute, the Max-Planck-Institute for Informatics, and recent postdoctoral research at the Harvard Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, James found himself drawn to the “exceptional” students of Brown and the faculty’s rapport with them. “I think Brown is different. There’s a focus on teaching and really a will to support students. The ratio of TAs to undergraduate students is impressive, and I’ve worked with a Brown CS PhD, so I have a healthy respect for them too.” James is also enthusiastic about the proximity to the Rhode Island School of Design. “I have so much appreciation for the work of designers,” Tompkin says. “Computer scientists, we’re so in the box! It helps to look outside.”

So, what is he excited about doing here at Brown? James pauses for a second. “Computer graphics is in a very interesting position at the moment. In many ways, we’ve already solved the grand challenge of realistic image synthesis. Think about that: how many fields can say, ‘We did it all in about fifty years. Sorry!’ That amazes me.” But the amazement quickly gives way to a maker’s eagerness: “In visual computing, I see a mismatch between how we see and interact with the world and the tools that we use to capture it. Video is most similar to how we actually see. It’s a powerful medium: extremely fun, highly creative, good for storytelling, but it’s still very difficult to use. My research tries to remove some of these barriers to self-expression. I’m so pleased that as a community, we’re developing cheap and good ways for people to use cameras to make rich models of the world around them. This lets us give powerful new tools to novices and professionals, and expand what is possible with media, especially interactive media.”

As the credits roll on his research video and an orchestral score wafts in, Tompkin casually tosses out one more marvel: an antique view camera with a tablet housed inside, letting the viewer explore the Hitchcock classic Rear Window in real time as the voyeur, panning and zooming and changing perspective. “Most of the things people want to do are related to the real world,” James notes, “firmly grounded in reality. That’s why I try to make camera-captured media easier to create, analyse, and explore.” But like everything else on his resume, this looks highly creative. And extremely fun.

James will be teaching CSCI2951-I: Computer Vision for Graphics and Interaction in the fall.

For more information, please click the link that follows to contact Brown CS Communication Outreach Specialist Jesse C. Polhemus.