- Feature Stories
- News Flash
- Making Noise
- The Fence
- Beyond the Cut
- Inspire Innovation
By: Jennifer Bails
It's the first bone-chilling day of winter, and Adrien Treuille finds sanctuary from the cold in the steaming hot latte he sips at his office desk. Nearly imperceptible currents of vapor escape from the lid of his paper cup and quickly disappear. As the Carnegie Mellon professor settles in at his laptop, his well-worn T-shirt wrinkles against his skin. He runs his fingers through his close-clipped hair, which flattens slightly before bouncing back into position.
Outside, the arctic wind lashes against the tall grass covering the hill beneath Treuille's office window in the Gates Center for Computer Science. The blades bend back and forth, barely withstanding the force of each gust. Simultaneously, a tempest of snow churns in the air as the gale kicks up the dusting that veiled the Pittsburgh campus overnight. Evidently, the weather isn't harsh enough to deter throngs of students who hurry along the sidewalk to class, though most walk with their heads down to help ward off the wintry mix.
Steam evaporating. A shirt creasing. Hair mussed up. Wind blowing. Crowds moving. These are physical minutiae of the human experience that go largely unnoticed in our daily lives. Yet, what if you are trying to recreate those experiences on a computer so the virtual world you construct seems absolutely faithful to our perception of everyday reality? In that case, getting these small, deceivingly complex details right takes on huge importance.
There's a whole lot of math, physics, and computer theory inherent in that challenge. For Treuille, there's poetry, and maybe even some magic involved, too. "It's totally enchanting to look out your window and see all of these things happening—snow falling, plants bending in the wind—and to ask yourself not only how does it work, but how would I build these things?" says Treuille, who joined the faculty of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon one year ago as an assistant professor in the computer graphics group.
"It gets to a fundamental part of computer science," he adds, "where you have these building blocks, but unlike in other fields, there is a sense in which these building blocks actually live and breathe, and if you assemble them the right way, Pinocchio will come alive, so to speak."
Growing up as one of four children of two banking executives in Manhattan, Treuille (a French name pronounced "Troy" in English) never imagined himself on the frontiers of digital possibility, breathing virtual life into metaphorical wooden puppets. "In high school, I had a nerdy interest in computer games the way boys do," he recalls. "But I really hated science and math and thought they were really boring."
Fluent in French, thanks to his father, a French national who is a colonel and commander of the French Army Reserves in the United States, Treuille began college at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He quickly grew disenchanted with his studies in international relations and almost dropped out of school his sophomore year. That's when an economics professor told him, in the parlance of the field, that his intellectual resources were being "misallocated" and urged him to try classes in other disciplines. "Among other crazy things, I took a computer science and math class, and I thought they were totally sweet," recalls Treuille.
After graduating from Georgetown with a degree in computer science in 2002, Treuille enrolled in graduate school at the University of Washington. There, he discovered the field of computer graphics during a course on physics-based animation taught by his doctoral advisor, Zoran Popovi, who earned his PhD in computer science from Carnegie Mellon in 1999.
For many years, computer scientists have been applying the laws of physics—such as the set of equations that describe the behavior of fluids—to model physical phenomena like curling smoke and splashing water. However, the mathematical complexity of these simulations meant they required the power of supercomputers and a lot of time to conjure them realistically on the screen. For example, a full simulation of how a shirt might be folded would include extremely implausible, origami-like shapes described by complex algorithms requiring minutes or even hours for high-performance computers to process—a virtual eternity.
For his dissertation research, Treuille applied and developed a mathematical method called model reduction to make these kinds of simulations run at faster speeds on everyday personal computers and other commodity hardware devices. This breakthrough approach puts physics-based animation in the hands of ordinary people by boiling down the number of variables the computer must account for when representing physical systems, removing unlikely outcomes.(Continued …)