Monday, May 10, 2010

Location, location, location

Today, many conglomerates are not run by visionaries but by gnomes toting spreadsheets. The key factor for success is then the objective function being optimized by the model. More often than not, the objective function is cost minimization.

Because there are still substantial salary differences around the world, but all scientists are equally dumb (otherwise they would all work in the financial industry), it boils down to location. You can convince yourself of this by driving around the research parks of the Silicon Valley: it looks more and more like Bodie, although some optimistic realtors still leave up the "for lease" signs. The research labs moved from Palo Alto to Beijing, and from there to the Amazon. Who knows where the objective function will send them next.

Unless, somebody uses a different objective function. On 30 April 2010, Disney opened a new research lab in the most expensive city in the world: Zürich in Switzerland, joining companies like IBM and Google, who also have research labs there. Obviously, they concluded that the best location is not the one with the lowest wages, but the one with the sharpest brains, all in a fertile eco-system.

The story began four years ago: Disney's new CEO Robert Iger and Edwin Catmull, chief of the Pixar animation studios that belong to Disney since early 2006, decided to perform more research in house. Through Joe Marks, ETH professor Markus Gross prepared the winning proposal for a joint venture between ETH and Disney.

Prof. Markus Gross, ETH and Disney Research Zurich

Disney is paying the high Swiss salaries, while the ETH is contributing the infrastructure. This includes the building at Clausiusstrasse 47. The created intellectual property and their licensing fees will be shared between ETH and Disney. At the opening April 30, Disney Research Zurich started with 20 researchers, which will grow to 40 by 2011.

In the portrait above, Prof. Markus Gross is holding cheap 3-D goggles, but the agenda for Disney Research Zurich goes much further than that. For example, part of the eco-system in Zurich is a small company selling a mobile autosteroscopic video player the size of a paperback for just 400 francs. This video player presents 3-D movies without the spectator wearing special glasses.

Not far from Disney Research Zurich, near the city zoo, is FIFA, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, who is organizing the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa. Disney's ESPN sports channel has announced that is will broadcast the Johannesburg games in 3-D. This will bring big financial opportunities for owners of virtual sky boxes around the world.

One especially hard problem in presenting 3-D contents on a 2-D surface is vergence, and this is one of the areas being researched at the new laboratory, for now with Swiss cows:

Left: original 3-D image; right: depth optimization to reduce vergence problems