Geek Speak: Alla Sheffer, associate professor of computer science at UBC

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      Alla Sheffer is bringing micrography into the digital age. Micrograms are a form of calligrams, artworks that use readable text to form an image. They’ve been around for centuries, but now Sheffer and her team at the University of British Columbia are computerizing the process of making them.

      An associate professor of computer science, Sheffer was born in Russia and lived in Israel and the U.S. before moving to Canada in 2003. The 40-year-old academic resides in Kitsilano.

      Sheffer and her team presented their technical paper on digital micrography at the SIGGRAPH 2011 conference, which took place from August 7 to 11 in Vancouver.

      The Georgia Straight reached Sheffer on her cellphone.

      How would you describe your research interests to a layperson?

      If I look at the world around us, it’s three-dimensional, which means that if we want to generate any virtual environments or virtual worlds, we need to represent the geometry of the things around us. What I do is I deal with all the problems which come up on the algorithmic level if you want to describe 3-D shapes on a computer.

      How big is UBC in the computer-graphics world?

      We are pretty big. We have a very big group. We have six faculty who do graphics, and we are in general, I would say, one of the maybe top-five groups in North America.

      What was your SIGGRAPH 2011 presentation about?

      What we do is a type of text art, which is what’s called micrography. It’s a very ancient type of text art. What you do is you use very small but readable text to convey an image, and the text has a lot of meaning usually. It could be a poem, or it could be a chapter of a book. It’s basically a long sequence of text, and you arrange it into an image, so that you simultaneously can both visualize the image and, if you look pretty closely, you can still see the text.

      So far, only artists are capable of doing it—and even then it requires really special skills and a lot of time. What we did is we came up with an algorithmic way of doing this process. So, now you can take your favourite poem and your favourite image, combine them together, push a button pretty much, and get a beautiful result.

      What is the commercial potential of computerizing the process of making micrograms?

      We actually did this work in collaboration with Adobe, so there is a quite good possibility that this might end up either directly or variations of this in the Adobe Illustrator software, because it can be a very useful tool for artists. We are also thinking of maybe doing an app, so an iPhone app or something like that, where people can pick their favourite picture, their favourite poem, and you get a micrographic image out of it. Those images are pretty cool, so we think that people might like those quite a bit.

      What is the importance of SIGGRAPH to your work?

      SIGGRAPH, to me, is the most prestigious venue for publishing research in computer graphics. It’s also the biggest venue. It’s one where you don’t have only academics, but you also have lots of people from industry, artists, people who basically look at computer graphics from very different angles, from research to implementation to users. You get your work exposed to a lot of different people, and also get to learn from a lot of different people. So, it’s the best venue pretty much for what we do, to get feedback, and to present your stuff.

      Every Friday, Geek Speak catches up with someone in Vancouver’s technology sector, video-game industry, or social-media scene. Who should we interview next? You can tell Stephen Hui on Facebook and Twitter.




      Aug 12, 2011 at 10:38am

      Can you use this with text etc that has already been encrypted as opposed to plain text currently?