The University of Arizona

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CS Alumni Joins Cornell Faculty

November 24, 2008

Noah Snavely

Noah Snavely, who earned undergraduate degrees in computer science and mathematics from the UA, defended his Ph.D. thesis in November. Noah has been appointed to the faculty at Cornell University. Here’s an interview with outstanding UA alumni Noah Snavely.

What attracted you to Cornell?

In both my undergraduate education at University of Arizona, and during graduate school at University of Washington, I was able to work with people who were extremely talented researchers, but also very supportive and just plain nice to be around.  These things are very important to me, and when I visited Cornell I found that same mix of qualities.

What are your areas of research expertise?

I work in the areas of computer vision and computer graphics.  Currently, my main research interest is in using large Internet photo collections from sites like Flickr and Facebook to recreate the world in 3D – I ultimately want to use the billions of photos available on the web to create a digital version of the world that is just as visually compelling as the real thing.  During graduate school I worked on a project called Photo Tourism that lets you enter a search term, such as “Statue of Liberty,” and gives you back a 3D model of that place, by crawling Flickr for photos and using computer vision algorithms to reconstruct 3D geometry.

What problem(s) does your research address/solve?

Right now there is a huge amount of interest in capturing and displaying the world, and several companies—Google, Microsoft, and others—are working hard to provide this data to people on mapping sites (Google Maps) and through 3D models of the world (Google Earth, Microsoft Virtual Earth 3D).  These applications have many uses: helping people to navigate through the world and virtual tourism, to name a few.  However, capturing these images and creating these 3D models takes a huge amount of effort.  Through my work, I want to use the crowd—the millions of people in the world who walk around every day with cameras—to aid in this effort.  I have already used photos on Flickr to create models of parts of the world, but a next step is to create a community where people intentionally take photos to contribute to a large world-reconstruction project.

How does your research impact society?

In addition to the applications described above, I want to create tools that make it easy for people to use their camera to capture and share places and events that are important to them.  For instance, if someone wants to sell their home, they should just be able to take photos from every room, and stitch them together into an experience where a potential buyer could virtually walk through the house to get a better understanding of it.  There are also applications in science, education, and cultural heritage.  The techniques I’m working on could help archaeologists to build 3D models of artifacts, educators to create digital versions of famous places for students to explore, and historians to preserve information about important buildings and places.

Describe the achievements that you are most proud of in your career.

My proudest achievement so far was to take a research idea, and through hard work and persistence, to see it develop, take off, and eventually become the basis of a tool that many people use.  The Photo Tourism project described above was licensed by Microsoft and turned into a product called Photosynth (, where people can take their own photos and process them to create a virtual world that they can explore in 3D.

What made you choose to study computer science?

Originally I started at UA as a physics major.  However, I took a few computer science courses and soon realized that I found CS much more engaging.  Computer science is a broad field that encompasses both very theoretical and very applied aspects.  I really enjoy that in CS I get to think about problems on many different levels, and then create a solution in a very hands-on way.

Describe your experience as an Honors student at the UA.

I cherish the years I spent in the CS department at UA, and look back upon them with fondness as a time when I both learned a great deal and had a lot of fun.  I had a lot of good classes, but my favorite was a course on computer graphics—I loved creating images, and eventually decided to go into that area in grad school.  I also got my first exposure to research at UA, working with two very supportive mentors, Dr. Greg Andrews, and Dr. Saumya Debray.  They spent a lot of time helping me learn how to do research, and I was able to publish several papers by the time I had graduated.  I also benefitted greatly from working with other students on projects, as well as just spending time in the CS lab hanging out.  (On a more personal note, I also met my future wife while in the department–she was another CS student).

What advice would you offer to computer science students who wish to pursue a career in academia?

Looking back, I think that there are a few important things I learned during school.  One is to find a great set of colleagues and mentors–people who you enjoy working with, who inspire you, and who will give you help and time when you need it.  The second is related to research, and it’s to find something you’re excited about to work on—a goal or area that will keep you inspired, even when you get stuck or when the actual research isn’t going so well.  You’ll also be more likely to get other people excited in what you’re doing.  Of course, so far I’ve only seen the world of academia from a student’s perspective.  You might want to ask me again after a few years as an assistant professor—the answer you get might be completely different.

To learn more about Noah Snavely’s research visit these links:

My home page at UW:

The Photo Tourism home page:

The Photosynth webpage: