6 November 2007 - 1:25Systems research is not sexy
Sometimes I envy my fellow CS grad students doing research in areas like computer vision, graphics, robotics, infovis, etc. because their demos and final products are usually sexier and are much more accessible to non-computer scientists and non-technical people. That sort of stuff makes the news and just plain looks cool to bystanders. Distributed programming middleware, filesystems, operating systems research and a lot of other systems research topics just don’t usually lead to very sexy demos, at least not the infrastructure — the applications built on top may provide cool demos, but people tend to take the infrastructure for granted. Other computer scientists may (hopefully) appreciate good systems research, but it’s just not sexy.
Look at stuff that gets published in SIGGRAPH, ICCV, ACM Multimedia and similar venues. Compare with venues like SOSP, OSDI, Usenix, etc. In terms of the ability to appeal to non-technical people, I think systems work is soundly beaten. Now, of course popular appeal is not the point of these venues, and I don’t think it’s something to “fix,” I’m just using them as representative samples of their respective subdisciplines. I guess what makes the output of some disciplines more accessible to outsiders is their connection to the real world (the parts that people interact with, at least). Graphics and information visualization deal with visual output, and computer vision deals with visual input. Robots navigate in and manipulate the real world. Systems work is building software that either interfaces with computer hardware or other layers of software. I guess in that respect, middleware is sort of the ultimate “boring” and unappreciated artifact.
On the topic of cool graphics demos, here are a few that immediately come to mind:
- Dual Photography from SIGGRAPH 2005 — check out the demo where they reconstruct the face of a playing card with its back to the camera
- Photo Tourism from SIGGRAPH 2006 — Microsoft Live Labs has turned this into Photosynth, and they have been doing demos of it quite a bit for the past year or so. Blaise Aguera y Arcas gave a MS Photosynth and Seadragon demo as a TED talk.
- Scene Completion Using Millions of Photographs from SIGGRAPH 2007 — Applying “Google-sized” data sets to hard vision problems. Alexei Efros, the faculty advisor of this project, gave a Google Tech talk recently titled “Using Data to ‘Brute Force’ Hard Problems in Vision” talking about the results of this paper and related data-heavy efforts. Again, the talk has lots of cool, compelling visual examples of the research.
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