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Josh Vekhter

from foolish products to basket weaving

Josh Vekhter

from foolish products to basket weaving

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Tags: Computer graphics, Computing education programs, Mesh geometry models

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Josh Vekhter is a computer graphics Ph.D. .student at the University of Texas at Austin where he works with Dr. Etienne Vouga. His research focus has been developing algorithms and applying techniques from geometry processing to develop novel computational fabrication techniques. Before grad school, he started his own startup, Foolish Products. in this interview, he shares his experience with computer graphics, startups, and grad school.

Sepideh Maleki (SM): What is the deal with computer graphics and bunnies?

Josh Vekhter (JV): The bunny is from one of the first standardized repositories of 3-D scans, created at Stanford in 1994. Many of the models in this repo had a warning, stating that they were religious and cultural symbols and the maintainers asked that the renderings of them be kept in "good taste." This meant, don't animate, morph, or simulate nasty things happening to them like breaking, exploding, melting, etc.

The Stanford bunny was okay to use for everything though, so it sort of became the go-to model for testing that your code works on something more complicated than a ball or a box.

I think it's stuck around because of the ears though. A lot of algorithms will produce artifacts around the ears.

SM: I saw a picture of you and a giant bunny? Is that your research project?

JV: Yep! I've spent a lot of time in grad school figuring out how to weave this big Stanford bunny!

SM: I'm a little confused, what does basket weaving have to do with computer science?

JV: Well it started out as a bit of a joke. My advisor teaches a course on physical simulation, and for the final project, I worked with a partner on a basket simulator. But it turned out to be quite an interesting problem.

That project introduced me to a bunch of artists and architects, like Alison Grace Martin, Ruth Asawa, Martin Puryear, Marc Fornes, Buckminster Fuller, and more, all of whom make these incredibly complex structures out of fibers and ribbons. Eventually there was a group of us working on this experimental piece of CAD software that could help non-experts weave complex shapes.

The idea was to do something a bit like 3-D printing, except in our project the computer only outputs the assembly instructions. No one has made any basket weaving robots yet, so you have to play the part of one. A professor from the textile department worked with us to figure out how to make a usable system, which took quite a bit of trial and error.

SM: You're working on hex meshing these days? Why meshing?

JV: The way we approached the weaving problem was to apply tools from the meshing literature. Specifically we modified the general approach used in the area of geometry processing called direction field synthesis.

Hex meshes are a way of breaking up a volume into regular blocks called hexahedra, and they are used widely in engineering applications. Generating robust hex meshes is still something of an unsolved problem in this area, which makes it exciting to work on.

We thought the same computational framework we used to weave baskets could also be applied to create better hex meshes. I visited the Geometric Data Processing Group at MIT my second summer in grad school, and I've been collaborating with two students there on this work.

SM: Are you going to make another bunny with the new research idea? If not, what are you planning to do?

JV: One bunny is probably enough for now, there's a lot of other shapes to explore!

There's a lot of natural fabrication projects related to hex meshing though. The mathematical tools we've been studying have a lot of potential applications for generating lightweight lattice structures, which can be manufactured on SLS 3-D printers.

SM: So no plans to study underwater basket weaving?

JV: Not at the moment, though I interned at JPL [NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory] last summer and think that weaving for space applications could be an exciting research area. Composite materials are known for their high strength to weight ratios.

SM: You also have a startup, called Foolish Products, LLC. What do you do there?

JV: I took a detour through electrical engineering before grad school, developed a little open source, Arduino compatible, microcontroller called the Whoa Board. We figured out a way to perform touch sensing measurements on electro-luminescent (aka EL) lighting elements.

My dad helped me design the hardware, I wrote the software. Then we ran a crowdfunding campaign and manufactured hundreds of these circuit boards. It has been exciting to work with real hardware that gets shipped out into the world. Really gives you an appreciation for the complicated supply chains that power the economy.

SM: So startup or grad school?

JV: I've enjoyed grad school, I'm very grateful for the opportunity. Some people definitely rush into it though. I'm glad I had a chance to try a few different jobs before returning to school. It's hard to do both though, and I've mostly been focused on research these days.

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