Supun Samarasekera: Improving how we interact with the world around us 

In his over 25-year career at SRI, Samarasekera has created innovative vision technology that helps us see, learn, and train in augmented reality.

I’ve been at SRI International for more than 25 years — and today I’m the senior technical director of the Vision and Robotics Laboratory at SRI’s Center for Vision Technologies (CVT). I lead commercial and government projects that include aerial and ground video surveillance, robotic systems, augmented reality, and 3-D mapping and modeling.

I’m originally from Sri Lanka and came to the US to study at the University of Pennsylvania, where I received my bachelor’s degree in computer science and engineering and my master’s degree in computer information systems. It was there that I first got excited about the field of computer vision. After receiving my degrees, I worked at the medical imaging group at UPenn for a few years.

Before SRI, I worked at Siemens Corporate Research, but when an opening appeared at SRI, I jumped at it. It was exciting to me to be part of a research organization that also promoted company spin-offs and commercialization opportunities. That was in 1997, so you could say I’ve grown up at SRI. At the time I wasn’t the typical person at CVT; I had a master’s degree while most of the people around me had PhDs and were doing research. But I knew I was strong with software and systems, so I’ve always made it my mission to take the ideas and research generated here and use it to build systems that can go out into the world.

One of my most exciting projects came early in my career, around the time of the 9/11 attack. There was a demand for security and surveillance systems that could monitor large areas more effectively than regular CC-TV. We developed Video Flashlight, which fuses together images from hundreds of cameras to form a coherent, dynamic display on a static 3-D model. It gives users a birds-eye view and allows them to zoom in to see what’s going on in large areas. It was a great experience bringing together cutting-edge algorithms and SRI expertise to build this massive system, which SRI later sold to a company that used the technology to help modernize Department of Defense training methods.

Right now, I’m really interested and focusing on augmented reality (AR) and its use in teaching and training. A recent project involved working with the military to train people to do vehicle maintenance without the need of having an instructor walking them through the manual. We created an AR system that allows trainees wearing AR glasses to see the vehicle they’re working on complete with overlays or video instruction showing the next step of the repair procedure. We’ve also worked with SRI’s Education Division to test an AR system in a Boston school that has a curriculum for dyslexic students. We were able to gamify lessons to help get the kids excited about reading.

The thing I love about working at SRI is being able to build on our achievements, whether it involves navigation, robotics, or any of our other areas. I love to believe in an idea and grow that to a mature fieldable technology. SRI has the architecture to take on that full cycle of development. Being part of that process is what’s exciting for me. I also love interacting with the people I work with. We’re learning together, and that’s a wonderful thing.

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