UI 'dream team' developing project mapping

CHAMPAIGN — Three University of Illinois students — each of whom has won impressive prizes for technological innovation — have combined forces to form a new company, Lumenous.

Brett Jones, Rajinder Sodhi and Kevin Karsch are blending their talents to develop software and hardware that will help advertisers, artists and designers create fantastic visual illusions.

Their field of expertise is "projection mapping," a technology that turns all sorts of objects into display surfaces for video projection.

With it, objects such as cars, bottles and even buildings can have a variety of light and color dancing across their surfaces, creating the illusion of motion.

It's a field embraced by folks who produce video commercials, concerts and theater performances and those who design amusement park attractions.

What the three doctoral students in computer science hope to do is develop "the Adobe of projection mapping" — software that makes it faster and easier for designers to create those visuals.

Right now, the work is "really hard to do. It takes hours to set it up, and then you can't reuse it," Karsch said.

Lumenous intends to devise a suite of tools that make it easy to create content — bringing the technology to a broader audience and at a lower price level.

"It should be as easy as (playing) a video game," Karsch said. "It's not like using Photoshop. This will be much more intuitive."

Sodhi said Lumenous doesn't have a product release date yet, but he looks for a prototype to be developed by the end of summer and a product release to come "within one or two years."

All three expect to receive their doctorates this spring and devote full time to the company, currently based in the EnterpriseWorks business incubator.

For now it's just the three of them, but they expect to scale up the workforce soon.

"I think we'll be expanding by this summer," Sodhi said.

Jones and Sodhi, the co-chief executive officers, each won the $10,000 Illinois Innovation Prize in 2013, for work that enhanced virtual experiences.

Sodhi's invention, AIREAL, enables viewers of movies and video games to feel — as well as see — special effects. With the invention, you could feel puffs of air or the sensation of a butterfly alighting on your arm.

Sodhi worked on the technology as a research associate with Walt Disney Imagineering.

Jones' technology, IllumiRoom, extended visualizations far beyond the TV screen onto surfaces surrounding it — in effect, giving you a 15-foot TV instead of a 40-inch one.

The technology gives viewers a more immersive experience and has applications in video games, theater and advertising. Jones worked on the technology as an intern at Microsoft Research.

Karsch, the chief technology officer for Lumenous, won the $30,000 Lemelson-Illinois Student Prize in 2012, for technology that allows even novices to manipulate images professionally.

Often when images are "cut-and-pasted," the lighting isn't right, the shadows are off, the reflections aren't accurate. But Karsch's technology helps make image manipulation look professional.

Jed Taylor, assistant director of the UI's Technology Entrepreneur Center, called the trio a "dream team of computer vision technology."

Plus, "they're nice guys to work with," said Taylor, who has assisted them as an entrepreneur-in-residence at EnterpriseWorks.

Taylor said several companies have licensed technology developed by the three. The new technology they're working on has "a lot of potential in marketing and advertising," he added.

Jones, 27, grew up in the Homewood-Flossmoor area south of Chicago and received bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science from the UI before starting his doctorate.

Sodhi, 28, was born in Singapore, grew up in Reno, Nev., and likewise got bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science from the UI.

Karsch, 26, is from the St. Louis area. He received an undergraduate degree in computer science and mathematics from the University of Missouri before pursuing his doctorate at the UI.

All three live in Champaign. They had job offers from various companies, but were interested in "doing our own thing," Karsch said.

They chose Lumenous as their company name because it incorporated the word "lumen," the standard measure of visible light emitted by a source.

To see examples of projection mapping ...

... visit a website created by the Lumenous founders — projection-mapping.org — that is intended to serve as a central resource for information on the subject.

Among the videos you can watch there:

— A building that bends like a shoe.

— People swimming in a sink.

— Evil snowmen.

— How the band U2 used projection mapping in a video.

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