The MERL Diaspora: Researchers from Defunct Mitsubishi Group Fan Out to Other Companies

Yesterday, we reported on an ongoing wave of departures among senior members of the once-renowned research division at Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories (MERL)—and a June lab reorganization that eliminated the division altogether in favor of six technology groups with a greater focus on product development. Xconomy has since obtained more details about the researchers who have left MERL and their new whereabouts.

At least eight researchers have taken new positions since CEO Richard Waters’ firing of former research director Joseph Marks inaugurated a period of turmoil at the lab last October. In two cases, the departing researchers were laid off by MERL; as far as we know, all of the other emigrés from the lab resigned for their own reasons, which may or may not stem directly from the discontent known to have spread at the lab after Marks’s firing.

Waters explains the subsequent reorganization as part of an effort to weed out research projects seen as too long-term or too far outside parent company Mitsubishi Electric’s actual product lines. “We are placing greater emphasis on the moment on trying to make sure that the key research we are doing is of central benefit to the company,” Waters told Xconomy.

Whether technology companies ought to support “pure” research not geared toward immediate payoffs is a perpetually controversial question. Regardless of their value to Mitsubishi Electric, however, the 20-odd members of the research division were regarded by peers in industry and academia as pioneers in areas such as computer interface design, displays, sensing, and biometrics. Outsiders describe the lab as a unique assemblage involved in productive collaborations with many external groups.

MIT professor Rod Brooks, who recently stepped down as director of the MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, says “The MIT AI Lab and CSAIL have had a great history of interaction with the lab.” And the changes at MERL haven’t gone unobserved. “I’ve noticed a lot of great people from MERL on the job market over the last few months,” says Brooks (who is an Xconomist).

The following list includes researchers who have left MERL since October, 2006. Several more members of the original research lab are on the verge of leaving, Xconomy’s sources say. “Pretty much everyone is being actively headhunted, and it’s fair to say that everyone is considering the possibility of leaving, if not actively on their way out the door,” says Paul Dietz, a former MERL researcher (who happens to head the list, alphabetically):

Paul Dietz. New employer: Microsoft. Dietz is a hardware expert best known as the lead builder of MERL’s DiamondTouch tabletop computer, a touch-sensitive display capable of discriminating between several users at once. He also won fame several years ago as the inventor of iGlassware, a series of sensor-equipped drinking glasses that could report back to serving staff when they were approaching empty. Dietz has joined the Applied Sciences group of Microsoft’s hardware division in Redmond, WA, where he is part of the team that launched the company’s Surface tabletop computer.

James L. Frankel. New employer: Frankel & Associates, Lexington, MA. At MERL, Frankel was part of a team that developed “tangible interfaces” such as construction toys that could be automatically transformed into computer-graphics models. He also helped to develop the”Star Trek”-like ComBadge, a two-way communications device operated entirely through voice commands. Frankel is now an independent computer systems consultant.

Joseph W. “Joe” Marks. New employer: Walt Disney Animation Studios, Los Angeles, CA. Marks, who was research director at MERL from 2000 to 2006, is credited with attracting and retaining MERL’s respected collection of researchers. Marks’s own research at MERL involved new uses of computers for education and artistic expression. He is the conference chair of SIGGRAPH 2007, the prestigious computer-graphics meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery that will take place next week in San Diego. As vice president of software research and development at Disney Animation Studios, Marks will oversee the design of new digital animation techniques.

Wojciech Matusik. New Employer: Adobe Systems. Matusik is a leading innovator in several areas of computer graphics and computer vision, including software for facial recognition and facial modeling, 3D photographs that weave together images from multiple cameras, and “automultiscopic” 3D displays that work without special glasses. At Adobe, Matusik holds the post of senior research scientist.

Baback Moghaddam. New Employer: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA. As a PhD student at the MIT Media Lab, Moghaddam developed probabilistic face-recognition technique that won a DARPA face recognition competition. At MERL he worked on improved algorithms for fingerprint recognition and face recognition. Moghaddam is now a principal member of JPL’s Machine Learning and Instrument Autonomy Group, which uses machine learning techniques to automate the analysis of data collected by NASA space probes such as the Mars rovers.

Hanspeter Pfister. New employer: Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Pfister is an expert in scientific visualization. At MERL, he was the chief architect behind VolumePro, a graphics board for PCs specialized for rendering complex 3D scenes such as MRI scans. At Harvard, Pfister is Professor of the Practice and Director of Visual Computing in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and director of the school’s Initiative in Innovative Computing.

Charles “Chuck” Rich. New employer: Worcester Polytechnic Institute. In the 1990s Rich and Sidner developed COLLAGEN, a Java toolkit for building “collaborative software agents” that unobtrusively guide humans through computer-related tasks. Rich also worked on multiuser interactive multimedia environments that foreshadowed contemporary social virtual worlds such as Second Life. He was the MERL research group’s associate director. At WPI, Rich is part of the faculty in Interactive Media and Game Development.

Candace “Candy” Sidner. New employer: BAE Systems, Burlington, MA. Sidner is a leading researcher in speech-based user interfaces and human-robot interaction. Through her work on COLLAGEN, she explored ways to improve collaboration between humans and robots through natural conversation and eye contact. With Rich, she developed DiamondHelp, a dialogue-based help system for electronic appliances. Sidner has joined the Advanced Information Technologies division of British aerospace company BAE Systems; the division develops new information processing algorithms for a range of defense and intelligence applications.

Benjamin Vigoda. New employer: Lyric Semiconductor, Cambridge, MA. As a visiting scientist at MERL, Vigoda worked on statistical signal processing techniques using analog circuits, and led a joint DARPA-funded MERL/MIT team to build radio-frequency analog logic circuits intended to make “software radios” more adaptable and power-efficient. He’s now at Lyric Semiconductor, a venture-funded startup developing new design techniques for application-specific integrated circuits.

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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