Researcher Spotlight: Li-Yi Wei on combining machine intelligence and human creativity

December 5, 2022

Tags: Researcher Spotlights

Created by Li-Yi Wei using Adobe Fresco

Interactive Graphics Researcher Li-Yi Wei’s work focuses on 2D and 3D graphics, computer intelligence, and the space where technology meets human creativity.

We talked to Wei about the evolution of his research, why communicating about technology is so important, and the path from industry to academia and back again.

Your research covers a lot of territory. You’ve said that you study “repetitive phenomena between small and large, simple and complex, past and future,” with a focus on computer graphics and human-computer interaction. Can you tell us more about what interests you?

Years ago, people told me to focus on a niche and establish a reputation, but that’s not how my brain works. Everything seems connected to me, so I just trust my instincts and they guide my work.

I started my research into image textures and patterns over 20 years ago, and then gradually expanded to other domains such as strokes, shapes, motions, and workflows.

One question I’m very passionate about right now is how to combine machine intelligence and human intelligence. On one hand, when people are doing creative work, they want to control their style and processes. But on the other hand, they may prefer to avoid tedious, repetitive, time-consuming tasks.

For example, if I’m painting a picture, I can place every brush stroke myself. But sometimes, I’ll find that I’m doing a lot of repetition. In that case, I may want the machine algorithm to reduce my workload. Or I may even want it to compensate for some of the skills I lack.

You can think of this with 3D objects, too. Imagine you are Rodin making a sculpture out of marble — you’re often using the same tap, tap, tap, and just doing it a million times. So I’ve worked on projects that help people sculpt 3D models using a virtual chisel, and we can let the computer automate the repetitive tasks without taking control from the artist.

How has your research impacted Adobe products?

I’ve worked closely with the Adobe Fresco team on motion graphics. One feature I’m very excited about is Motion Brush, which helps people create simple animations without going through the pain of painting every frame one-by-one or having to learn advanced animation software features. I even produced a lot of drawings and animations myself during the development process!

I’ve also contributed to Adobe Substance 3D Stager (previously known as Adobe Dimension).

Animation created by Li-Yi Wei using Adobe Fresco

You’re passionate about doing research, but you’re also a strong believer in the importance of communicating about research. You even helped teach an intern workshop on writing papers this summer. Why do you think communication is so important?

A lot of times engineers or scientists think, ‘Oh, my technology or my idea is the most important thing.’ A good idea is important, but if we cannot let others understand it, or convince them to do it, it’s useless. So communication really matters — it’s something I’m still learning how to do well.

From a narrower perspective, if you’re a student or professor or Adobe Researcher and you want to submit a paper, writing matters. Someone once told me that writing is just as important as the underlying idea when it comes to which papers get published.

If you hope to have an impact, people have to be able to understand what you’re saying.

You started your career in industry, spent some time as a professor, and then came back to industry to join Adobe. Can you tell us about that path?

For my first job in industry, I was doing a lot of academic-type work — writing and publishing papers and working with student interns. It was something I liked a lot, so I thought maybe I’d become a professor to experience a different kind of career. I joined The University of Hong Kong and I really enjoyed it, especially teaching and advising students. But I missed having a connection to industry, and I missed hearing what everyone was talking about in the Bay Area — and my family was still living there, so I was flying back and forth and experiencing a lot of jet lag.

Then, in 2016, my friend Aaron Hertzmann (a fellow Adobe Researcher) invited me to give a talk at Adobe. I really enjoyed the environment. And Hertzmann is a former professor who came to Adobe, so that got me to thinking about doing the same thing myself.

What do you like most about working at Adobe?

Adobe is a wonderful company to work for. We have great products, and equally important, we have a great company culture. We value diversity and we emphasize work-life balance. It’s a place where people feel like they can stay for a long time and find both productivity and happiness.

For Adobe Research in particular, it’s an ideal place if you want the best of two worlds: to do academic things, including research, publishing papers, and advising student interns, and to see your ideas in the next iteration of a product.

Interested in working with our team of research scientists and engineers? Learn more about careers with Adobe Research!

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