06 July 2015

This is a fun post containing a lot of pictures and video clips. It will show you a wide variety of research topics within modern Computer Graphics. You might be surprised that some of these topics are done within graphics, but we can refer back to the definition in my first post to see how they fit into the bigger picture:

Computer Graphics is about modelling the physical world, using these models to capture the real world and to create physically meaningful things


Let’s start by talking about the obvious research areas. 3D rendering has been a core area in graphics since the very beginning of the field. In terms of our definition, rendering is about modelling how light bounces off of objects and using this model to create images of scenes.

Rendering is considered a fairly mature subfield these days. Here are some of the specific topics that are still investigated in rendering

  • Realistic lighting: Certain lighting effects, such as the patterns you see at the bottom of swimming pools or the bright red color of a table "bleeding" onto the adjacent wall, are traditionally hard to simulate in graphics.
    On the left, the water in a swimming pool focuses light in certain regions of the pool floor, resulting in caustic effects. The paper on the desk in the right picture is not shiny, but it still causes the wall above it to appear slightly colored
    To make these kinds of realistic lighting effects, we have no better method than to simulate billions of individual rays of light as they bounce around the virtual world. Did you know that the entire IKEA catalogue is computer generated? They use this method to make their images. This is also how most movies render their computer-generated imagery. Research in realistic lighting tries to make this as efficient as possible, finding ways to simulate fewer light paths while still approaching the physically correct result, or finding ways to speed up the process of simulating light paths.
    This result from a recent SIGGRAPH paper focuses on how to render translucent materials and liquids; the rendered image also shows some caustics and reflections. Krivanek et al., Unifying Points, Beams, and Paths in Volumetric Light Transport Simulation, SIGGRAPH 2014.
  • Real-time rendering: In contrast to movies, where the things you see are predetermined, video games and virtual reality applications must be interactive - you can move your character around, which changes where his shadows fall or where his flashlight is shining. Figuring out how to render realistic lighting effects at interactive frame rates is a big research topic, especially at companies such as NVidia.
    From USC, the Digital Ira project aims to render a realistic human head, in realtime.
  • Complicated materials: While things like walls and mirrors are easy to render, there are some materials that are much more complicated. For instance, skin and marble exhibit what is known as subsurface scattering, which is hard to model traditionally. See the Digital Ira video above for some really realistic skin rendering. Other materials such as cloth and sand are made up of small (but not microscopic) structures that play a large role in appearance even when you can't distinguish those structures.
    Researchers at Disney show how to render sand castles. Meng et al., Multi-Scale Modelling and Rendering of Granular Materials, SIGGRAPH 2015.
    Work from UCSD showing how to render cloth. Sadeghi et al., A Practical Microcylinder Appearance Model for Cloth Rendering, SIGGRAPH 2013.
  • Nonphotorealistic Rendering: What if we want to render something so that it looks cartoony, like a Disney movie? Nonphotorealistic rendering research looks at how to do stylized rendering to achieve a certain effect.
    Researchers at Pixar show how to automatically change the style of a 3D animation into a different one. Benard et al., Stylizing Animation by Example, SIGGRAPH 2013.


Another unsurprising research area of graphics is animation. Animation is concerned with the dynamics of a scene, modelling how objects move and change shape over time. Here, the physically meaningful result is a video (or many still images) showing these changes.

  • Character animation has traditionally been done by specifying a set of “bones” (rigging), attaching the surface of a character model to these bones (skinning), and then specifying the angles of these bones relative to each other (animating). Most research goes into the last step, since it’s difficult to strike a balance between having a character’s movements look realistic and letting an animator control the movements of the character. At one extreme, animators specify the exact angles for every single joint in the character. At the other extreme, we have performance capture methods, where we track the movements of a real actor and then transfer those movements onto a character rig (but then if we want to change how the movement looks, we have to redo the capture).
This work from the University of Houston shows how to automatically figure out the skeleton and joints for a 3D model just from a few different poses of the model. Le & Zhang, Robust and Accurate Skeletal Rigging from Mesh Sequences, SIGGRAPH 2014.
  • Instead of using bones and skinning, another way of animating objects just looks at how the surfaces of the objects move. This is often used to animate faces, but can also be used for more interesting shapes, as can be seen below.
Researchers at Georgia Tech can make jelly-like objects move themselves in realistic ways. Tan et al., Soft Body Locomotion, SIGGRAPH 2012.
  • Facial animation is a very important area of research in graphics. We convey a lot of information in our facial actions and expressions, and being able to translate this into software is still not solved. Using many techniques from graphics and vision, researchers in facial animation have to model how our face shape changes, sometimes modelling skin on top of muscles and bone, other times only modelling the surface of the skin. Research in facial animation addresses both how to capture detailed facial expressions from an actor or user as well as how to use that information to control a virtual avatar or character model.
From the University of Washington, researchers are able to get accurate 3D face models just from a video clip. Suwajanakorn et al., Total Moving Face Reconstruction, ECCV 2014.
At Microsoft Research, we can use the results of facial capture systems such as the one above in order to control not only virtual human faces, but even dog or monster faces. Xu et al., Controllable High-Fidelity Facial Performance Transfer, SIGGRAPH 2014.
  • A recent hot topic in animation is using machine learning or optimization to automatically figure out how to animate characters or creatures, without any manual control or motion capture. They’re lots of fun to watch!
In this work from Utrecht University, virtual humanoids, birds, and other creatures learn how to walk all by themselves, even while large objects are thrown at them. This entire video is filled with laughs - make sure you watch it all! Geijtenbeek et al., Flexible Muscle-Based Locomotion for Bipedal Creatures, SIGGRAPH Asia 2013.
Researchers at Adobe analyze how modern animals walk based on their skeletal structure in order to predict how the dinosaurs might have moved. Wampler et al., Generalizing Locomotion Style to New Animals With Inverse Optimal Regression, SIGGRAPH 2014.

Physical Simulation

Physical simulation is also about the dynamics of a scene, but while animation deals with characters and objects under animator control, physical simulation goes back to pure physics to model how physical phenomena naturally occur so that we can use this knowledge in our virtual environments.

  • A favorite topic of physical simulation researchers is investigating how things collide, bounce, and shatter when they hit other things. The usual method for simulating these sorts of phenomena is using Finite Element Methods, which let us assume that everything is made of of very tiny discrete elements - imagine, for instance, approximating a circle as being made up of many small lines. The behavior of individual elements and their interaction with nearby elements can be formulated as mathematical equations, which can then be solved to get the results of the simulation.
This work, from UC Berkeley, has some impressive results simulating how materials break under stress. Pfaff et al., Adaptive Tearing and Cracking of Thin Sheets. SIGGRAPH 2014.
  • Hair and fur is hard to simulate: individual strands of hair interact with many other strands of hair, as well as with gravity, tension, and so on.
Researchers at Columbia University did some heavy math to enable more accurate simulation of hair. Kaufman et al., Adaptive Nonlinearity for Collisions in Complex Rod Assemblies, SIGGRAPH 2014.
  • Cloth is hard to simulate for similar reasons as hair and fur - many individual fibres in the cloth are all woven into each other.
Researchers at UC Berkeley show off some of their cloth simulation results. Narain et al., Adaptive Anisotropic Remeshing for Cloth Simulation, SIGGRAPH Asia 2012.
  • Fluid dynamics, how liquids and gases move and interact with objects, have been studied for a very long time. Highly refined finite element methods are the key to good fluid simulation.
The graphics group at the University of Freiburg in Germany does a lot of work with fluid simulation. Here is one of their clips.
  • You might be surprised to hear that sound simulation papers are published in computer graphics conferences as well! Sound is still a physical phenomenon, so it’s still covered by our definition (even though it’s not really “graphics” anymore). Sound is a vital part of making any virtual world seem real. Sound simulation papers can be divided into two categories: there are those that deal with how individual objects vibrate to create sound, and others that deal with how sound waves propagate through a scene.

    Everyone knows what a plate falling onto a table sounds like. But can you predict what sound something will make just by looking at it?

Doug James and his lab at Cornell University do a lot of research on sound simulation. Here are some recent results. Langlois et al., Eigenmode Compression for Modal Sound Models, SIGGRAPH 2014.

An orchestra will sound different to a conductor than to someone sitting at the back of the concert hall; sound simulation can be used to help understand the effects of the shape of the environment on the sound that people hear at various locations in the environment.

Researchers at UNC Chapel Hill show some simulations of sound propagation in a city environment. Schissler et al., High-Order Diffraction and Diffuse Reflections for Interactive Sound Propagation in Large Environments, SIGGRAPH 2014.

Image and Video Processing

This category is more of a random collection of interesting things you can do when given images or videos. These are usually very application-driven. They often dealing with one longstanding problem with many works building off of each other, but there are also plenty of creative applications that nobody has thought of implementing before. Most of these works overlap significantly with computer vision.

  • One common area of research investigates how to interpret images in a way that lets you edit the scene inside them. Similar effects can often be achieved by using lots of fancy photoshop techniques, but these are often mostly automatic. In terms of our definition, this type of problem requires a lot of modelling! We have to model how the image was originally formed, how the lighting in the photo works, and how objects in the scene relate to each other in 3D.
In this work, researchers at Carnegie Mellon show some very impressive image editing results. They take a 2D photo and a 3D model of an object in the photo, and create new images with the object in different positions and orientations, even casting shadows. Kholgade et al., 3D Object Manipulation in a Single Photograph using Stock 3D Models, SIGGRAPH 2014.
  • There are many detailed motions in the world that are invisible to the naked eye, such as the vibrations of a resonating speaker or the regular reddening of someone’s cheek with their heartbeat. One group at MIT has devised a method to magnify these details using regular video camera or camera phone footage. These incredible results are not only physically meaningful, but are also things that we have never before been able to perceive visually.
Here are some of the highlights of the MIT video magnification projects. See http://people.csail.mit.edu/mrub/vidmag/ for more information.
  • Big data in computer graphics is a fairly hot research topic. The premise is that, with the popularity of photo-sharing sites like Flickr and Facebook, there is an incredible amount of image data, on a scale that we’ve never considered before. There are many ways to use this data, here is just one novel example:
Timelapses are videos that capture very long time periods. The usual method of capturing timelapses is to leave a camera at a fixed location and take a picture every few minutes or hours. In this work from the University of Washington, internet photos are used to generate timelapses automatically, even from photos that are not taken from the exact same location. Like the video magnification work above, this lets us see phenomena occurring over very long periods of time that we have not been able to see before. Martin et al., Time-lapse Mining from Internet Photos, SIGGRAPH 2015.


3D printing and fabrication have rapidly become a fairly popular subfield of computer graphics. The goal of these types of works is to be able to take a description of a 3D object, from things as simple as cubes to things as complicated as action figures, and make it physically into something you can touch and hold. Sometimes all we care about is making the 3D-printed model look like the virtual model, while other times we also want it to be able to bend or balance in certain ways as well! To do this we have to consider not only how the 3D printer works, but also how the material that the model is made out of behaves.

  • While designing and printing simple 3D models is fairly well understood, using standard 3D printers to print models that are meant to move is still an active area of research.
A group at University College London designed a way to print objects with joints that can be posed, much like action figures or artists mannequins. These poseable figures can be used straight out of the printer, no assembly required! Cali et al., 3D Printing of Non-Assembly, Articulated Models, SIGGRAPH Asia 2012.
  • Another aspect of printing 3D models is making them have certain physical characteristics (while still maintaining their shape). For example, given a 3D model how do we print it so that it can balance standing upright? How can we print it so that it is as light as possible? How can we print it so that certain parts are flexible while other parts are stiff?
Printed 3D models are constrained by the laws of physics, unlike the virtual models they are generated from. Researchers at ETH Zurich show a system that can make 3D printed shapes balance standing upright. Make It Stand: Balancing Shapes for 3D Fabrication, SIGGRAPH 2013.
  • Some of the most fun papers to read are those that use nonstandard methods and materials to make 3D models. There are papers about making 3D models out of beads, designing Rubik’s cube puzzles shaped like arbitrary models, sewing plastic sheets together so that they inflate into a certain shape, and so on. Takeo Igarashi, from the University of Tokyo, supervises a lot of this unique and interesting type of work.
Columbia University researchers show that, while there aren't that many direct practical applications, making Rubik's cube-like puzzles out of 3D models involves many interesting subproblems that are closely related to those involved in other 3D fabrication works. Sun & Zheng, Computational Design of Twisty Joints and Puzzles, SIGGRAPH 2015.
Work from the University of Tokyo and Autodesk Research shows how to make paper airplanes shaped however you want, and make them fly! As you might expect, this work involves modelling how the shape of the plane influences how it will fly. Umetani et al., Pteromys: Interactive Design and Optimization of Free-formed Free-flight Model Airplanes, SIGGRAPH 2014.


A grab bag of other topics covered in graphics

  • Shape Analysis is a highly technical topic that deals with analyzing what components make up an object. For example, consider chairs: many chairs look radically different; some have backs or armrests, while others don’t. By understanding what makes a chair a chair or an airplane an airplane, it is possible to do such things as automatically generating new objects of the same type.
A group at Stanford can generate hundreds of new 3D models of an object given only a small training set. In the picture, the green airplanes are the ones that their program is given, while the blue ones are the automatically generated ones. This work is really amazing considering that it works for not just airplanes, but whatever type of object you give it! Kalogerakis et al., A Probabilistic Model for Component-Based Shape Synthesis, SIGGRAPH 2012.
  • New types of 3D displays are discussed at graphics conferences as well. Usually these papers come out of the MIT Media Lab or the University of British Columbia. In these types of works researchers must model how we see real 3D scenes and figure out how to imitate that using whatever devices they have available.
Here is a demo of a 3D display that uses layers of special material to show images that don't require 3D glasses. Wetzstein et al., Layered 3D: Tomographic Image Synthesis for Attenuation-based Light Field and High Dynamic Range Displays, SIGGRAPH 2011.
  • New interfaces for interaction are one of the attractions of the SIGGRAPH conference; they are usually demoed at the Emerging Technologies venue but often also have associated papers presented at the conference. These works have a large overlap with Human-Computer Interaction; researchers have to model how people will use and interact with their technology as well as dealing with how to actually design and build the technology.
In this clip, you can see a system developed at Disney Research that uses puffs of air to provide tactile feedback to a user. Sodhi et al., Aireal: Interactive Tactile Experiences in Free Air, SIGGRAPH 2013.


That was just a taste of the kinds of things that graphics researchers work on, and it is by no means exhaustive. I picked out some of the work with the most visually interesting results that anyone can appreciate, regardless of their technical experience. Of course, there are many other works that are much harder to show visually, such as some of the heavily mathematical topics or the ones that deal with hardware design. The SIGGRAPH Technical Papers Preview is always a good place to find impressive clips of graphics research:

The last post of my series is going to be more of a personal take. I’ll tell the story of my journey into graphics research, starting from how I got into graphics and ending with what I want to do in the future.

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