Robin Rowe, So What’s a Creative Technologist?

What does a technologist do?

Robin Rowe  in a Robinson R66 helicopter at Paramount Studios - June 2, 2018

Robin Rowe in a Robinson R66 helicopter at Paramount Studios – June 2, 2018

BEVERLY HILLS, CA ( 2020/1/24 – What is a technologist? Sitting with Beverly Hills Courier publisher Lisa Bloch and staff writer Laura Coleman, this innocent-sounding question was the first thing I was asked in my Beverly Hills City Council candidate interview.

We live in a high tech world. I imagined everyone knows what a technologist does. I’d never thought about it. What is a technologist really? Moreover, I’m a creative technologist, a type of technologist uncommon outside of Hollywood. What is that?

The dictionary says a technologist is someone who is an expert in technology. Not much of an explanation.

My description of creative technologist is someone who defines and implements innovation. In short, I build cool things.

Many of my technology projects are with Hollywood and many are not. Sometimes I’m the project manager. Other times I’m called in to handle specific issues. I work with Fortune 500 companies and startups. I may be a product strategist, a software engineer, a program manager, or all three at the same time.

The typical life cycle for product innovation is 18 months. That matches Moore’s Law. When I’m the program manager, I may start at the beginning of the project. I will assemble the team, write the plan and so on.

I often get calls to join midway, to put projects back on schedule. Or, I may be tasked to build a specific module, a piece of a larger project. Or, to debug and optimize, to move from buggy prototype into stable product. Or, I may be tasked to create a port, to take an existing design and make it work on new hardware or new software.

Every project is different. Whatever the innovation project may be, it’s always fascinating to me. I’m lucky to get to do always something fresh. I’m grateful to the many companies that have given me such rich opportunities.

Below are a few of my innovation projects, examples of what a creative technologist does. Please note that just because I worked somewhere in the past, that is in no way an endorsement.

Lenovo ThinkReality AR glasses. Product strategist. System architect for speech recognition, computer vision, 3D data decimation and hands-free visual programming.

Visual Effects software architect and team leader for motion-capture animation system at a Hollywood studio. This Call of Duty clip shows what the system looks like in operation behind the scenes. What you would see if standing in the studio, and comparing the animated computer-generated output.

I didn’t build the version of the software in this Call of Duty clip. This is the “before.” My contribution was to rewrite this software, to make it run 20x faster on the same hardware and to fix bugs and add new features.

Here is the “after.” The studio VR mo-cap system is primarily used for visual effects, to add digital stunt doubles to major motion pictures. In superhero movies, the intended effect is to be photo-realistic. Convince the audience it is the real life actor on screen and not animation.

To produce cartoons, the same system can output 3D animation that is obviously not a human performer. And yet it actually is, because it is the performance of a live actor on a sound stage that is driving the animation. Not a team of animators.

Because the output is computer-generated in real time, the producers are able to watch the animated cartoon live on a studio monitor as the live actor performs in the scene. Direct the actor, shoot multiple takes, do what you would expect to do in a live action production. It’s not the tedious process of doing traditional animation by hand.

AT&T DirecTV. Genie set-top box architect and team leader. I wrote engineering specifications for client authentication and satellite channel expansion. No pressure, if I would make a design mistake it could cause every set-top box to stop working or let pirates take them over. Not only new set-top boxes. Worse case, break all the set-top boxes that customers already have.

Econolite Cobalt. Safety-critical, real-time, embedded Linux traffic control. This system operates some of the traffic lights in Beverly Hills and across the U.S.

I did multi-platform ports, support for embedded gcc, gcc, clang and VC++ compilers in a single codebase. Other changes I made were to support new Smart Cities AI traffic shaping. In the future AI will greatly reduce traffic congestion. Make every day like that magic day when you hit every green light.

I did extensive optimization and debugging of the system. Smart Cities functionality greatly increases the load on the hardware. To compensate, I made the software run much faster by removing wait states and improving threading.

GoPro. Hero IoT architect. On this project I was defining a new Internet-of-Things API and cloud interfaces to connect together the world’s sports cameras made by GoPro. I also did R&D in computer vision, for automatic video editing. To make video clips edit themselves.

CinePaint is an open source software project, a collaboration by the film industry to create a studio alternative to Photoshop. CinePaint is used to retouch motion pictures frame-by-frame. For visual effects, dust-busting or animation render repairs.

CinePaint has been used in making many major motion pictures, such as the Harry Potter films. I became the CinePaint project leader by accident.

While writing a column at Linux Journal about graphics, I wrote about CinePaint, a studio open source software collaboration that had no project leader. An open secret in Hollywood, the public had never heard of CinePaint.

After my article was published, readers contacted me with questions about CinePaint. That I answered them, and kept track of patches, made me the de facto leader. Sony and then ILM contacted me to say they had developers on it, that they would contribute.

CinePaint was used in making the Lord of the Rings films.

CinePaint was used to add the arrows to the climatic fight scene at the bridge in The Last Samurai.

DreamWorks Animation. R&D technologist. I designed software improvements for their massive supercomputer render farm. Built compression technology for Shark Tale. As a member of the Film Look committee I helped define HDR color standards for all DWA films.

Joining DreamWorks Animation was another surprise.

While writing my column at Linux Journal, I interviewed the CTO of DreamWorks Animation. He asked what else I did besides writing. I replied that I was a research scientist and software engineer. He said, we hire the best in the world, if you ever want to join DreamWorks Animation, let me know. I replied, ok, I’m letting you know.

It was to work at DreamWorks Animation that moved me to the Los Angeles area, settling in Beverly Hills in 2004.

USS Abraham Lincoln. Software field test at sea. As chief technologist and enterprise manager at the defense company SAIC, I was project manager and architect of a DARPA AI crisis detection and management system.

I sailed on the USS Lincoln and later the flagship for field tests. I integrated television news monitoring technology I’d developed into GCCS, the Global Command and Control System. GCCS connects military command centers, such as NORAD, with the president’s daily briefing system at the White House.

While I won’t show that system, this clip shows typical operations on the flight deck of the USS Lincoln. By the way, my quarters were below where this jet is taking off. Muffled under eight inches of steel, the afterburners are not loud.

Joining SAIC. They called me while I was working for the navy. Said they had the perfect opportunity for me, but that I would have to accept the project sight unseen. They couldn’t tell me what the project was.

I had loved working at NBC. Saying yes to SAIC made me a program manager at a major defense company. I advanced to chief technologist and enterprise manager. I got to be the founder of their AI research lab and two divisions there, and to lead my operation to profitability. DARPA, ONR and JPO became my defense clients. I worked on speech recognition, drone video transmission and anti-submarine warfare war gaming.

For my commercial division, I created an MPEG video editing system that sold to Time Warner. That was installed at over 100 TV stations for editing local broadcast news.

Naval Postgraduate School. As an adjunct professor, I taught Advanced C++ software design to military officers.

While working at NPS I was also a navy research scientist. I first joined a project building a realistic VR war gaming system, used to train special forces for mission rehearsal. That system was a precursor, looked like Call of Duty which came later. ModSAF/NPSNET ran on graphics supercomputers, not a PCs, which were too weak at the time.

While at NPS, I created a night vision flight simulator to test naval aviators. I did computational modeling of vision, extending research that had been done at Stanford. I redesigned calculus calculations to solve in a few minutes instead of needing years.

Joining NPS was a surprise. While in Monterrey speaking at the Symantic C++ Conference, I visited NPS to see a professor there. I had founded the C++ Users Group in Seattle and the professor was the brother of someone in the group.

At NPS, I was introduced to the C.S. department chair. He suggested I join NPS. I would have access to the most advanced graphics and super-computing technology in the world and work in VR. What an offer!

University of Washington. I taught Intermediate C++ to Boeing engineers.

The university had called me out of the blue, said they needed a hands-on guy who can teach working professionals. They had heard about me from some of my students, a C++ seminar I taught as a corporate trainer.

Before becoming a trainer and programmer, I worked in television. I had shot a dance documentary, which I edited at a small community access TV station in central Illinois. The station manager recommended me to the local NBC-TV affiliate.

At WICD-TV, I became technical director of television broadcast news. I produced live newscasts at 6pm and 10pm nightly. What a blast!

I left the station for a summer gig as dance cinematographer at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. I had produced a dance documentary. This was an opportunity to work with many of the top dance companies in the world.

After Jacob’s Pillow, I moved to Chicago. I was determined to get a job at WMAQ-TV, the flagship television station owned and operated by NBC.

As luck would have it, NBC was building a brand new TV station. They had the shell of a new building, identical to 30 Rock in New York City, and were about to install all the equipment and about 10 miles of TV cabling. I landed a job building the new TV station. In doing so I switched from TV production to broadcast engineering.

WMAQ-TV was the first station to be fully autonomous with free-roving cameras on rubber wheels, not on rails like NBC-TV at 30 Rock.

Building the most advanced robotic television station in the world was an experience that would shape my career. The systems integrator was SAIC, who I would work for again later.