Prize winner's development may revolutionize image editing

URBANA — Wouldn't it be great to be able to cut and paste objects into photos and videos without it looking like a "cut-and-paste" job?

Just think, you could put a Ferrari in your garage, a Rodin sculpture in your living room, a Faberge egg on your coffee table.

But if you didn't get help from expert imaging artists, your friends wouldn't be impressed.

There would be too many telltale signs of manipulation. The lighting wouldn't be right, the shadows would be off, the reflections wouldn't be accurate.

But that was before Kevin Karsch came along.

Karsch, a doctoral student in computer science at the University of Illinois, has developed a technology that allows even novices to manipulate images professionally.

And it's captured the attention of companies involved in 3-D modeling and image editing — as well as companies that deal with furniture and home decor.

For his efforts the last 2 1/2 years, the 24-year-old from St. Louis was named winner Wednesday of the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Illinois Student Prize, given for creating sustainable solutions to real-world problems.

Just think of what can be done with this "amazing, amazing technology," said Rob Rutenbar, head of the UI Department of Computer Science.

"Imagine slaughtering aliens in your own living room," he said, paraphrasing Karsch's adviser, David Forsyth.

Well, that might be on the extreme side.

After receiving the award, Karsch demonstrated the technology and how it works. All you have to do, he said, is "impart some wisdom" and let the computer do the rest.

That "wisdom" involves outlining the room's parameters and indicating the sources of light — a process that may take 30 seconds or so. The computer program takes it from there.

Karsch hopes his invention will revolutionize image editing and reduce production cost and time. The UI is working with him on filing for patent protection and has begun working on licensing agreements.

Eventually, Karsch hopes to form a company to develop the technology. But first, he wants to finish his doctorate.

As for the winnings, Karsch said, he plans to put them into "a low-risk CD" until he receives his degree. He said he hopes an online interface demonstrating the technology will be released to the public soon.

More than 50 people turned out Wednesday to see Karsch win the award and to honor four other finalists for the prize: doctoral students Sriram Chandrasekaran, James Langer and Pradeep Shenoy and senior Muhammed Fazeel.

The ceremony in the National Center for Supercomputing Applications auditorium was part of a three-way simulcast involving two other schools taking part in the Lemelson-MIT program — Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Lemelson Foundation, which underwrites the awards, was established by inventor Jerome Lemelson, who held more than 600 patents.

Speaking from MIT, his widow, Dorothy Lemelson, admitted, "I don't understand technology in the slightest."

But she told Karsh and the other honorees, "My wish is your successes will energize others."

On the web: A video of just under 5 minutes that explains Karsch's work is online: http://vimeo.com/28962540

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