Matt Pharr (YC ’93): From Mathematics to Computer Graphics

Elena Malloy
By Elena Malloy July 1, 2014 20:57

It is no secret that Yale changes perspectives.  Classes, conversations, and friendships all leave a mark on Yalies, often encouraging students to pursue paths they had not considered.  Matt Pharr (YC ’93) certainly experienced such a shift in his interests.

During his undergraduate years at Yale, Pharr developed an ability to explore and excel in new fields. This skill has led him to his current position at Google, where he researches computational photography, a field in which he had never previously worked.  He also published a textbook in 2004 on physically based rendering, a topic he only became interested in after graduate school. Yale made Pharr curious; he learned to seek out change, which has contributed to his dynamic professional success.

Matt Pharr has seen success in various computer programming related fields, including web design.  Image courtesy of pharr.org/matt/.

Matt Pharr has seen success in various computer programming related fields, including web design. Image courtesy of pharr.org/matt/.

“I came to Yale thinking that I was going to be a math major,” Pharr said, slightly chuckling at the thought.  Abstract algebra convinced him to switch to a more concrete field – computer science. “It became clear to me that I was probably not cut out for the class, or maybe I didn’t have enough passion for proofs to continue with university math,” Pharr said. He transitioned during his junior year of college. “I had been taking a lot of computer science courses along the way,” Pharr said, explaining that he felt as though programming was a better fit for his interests.

Though computer science is a popular major today, Pharr was only one of about 12 majors in his graduating class.  “It was a lot of fun to be in an extremely small program,” Pharr said.  In fact, because of the small size of the program, Pharr was able to expand outside the department and combine his interests in mathematics and computation by exploring computer graphics.   He worked with two other undergraduates and a post-doctoral student to develop a senior project in computer animation. The project involved graphically depicting planets, clouds, and outer space. Though simple by today’s standards, Pharr said his senior project was considered “pretty impressive” at the time. “The graphics [we used] required a substantial amount of computation,” he said, adding that this project remains one of his proudest accomplishments.

After graduating from Yale, Pharr pursued further education in computer graphics through graduate school at Stanford University. He then published a book on the subject.  “My goal was to write a good university textbook on computer graphics,” Pharr said. “But it turned out to be both a bigger effort than I ever expected and a more successful endeavor than we ever hoped for.” The textbook, Physically Based Rendering, has become one of the leading teaching tools for computer graphics in the recent decade.  The textbook even won an Academy Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  “This is the first book that has received this award,” Pharr points out on his website.

Pharr’s curiosity led him to explore web design as well. His website, pharr.org, is a testament to his skills in multiple programming disciplines. Additionally, Pharr has worked as a principal engineer at Intel.  In his extra time, Pharr gives talks at various universities about his passion for computer graphics.

For the past year, Pharr has been working at Google in computational photography, an emerging field that uses computation to obtain better pictures. “Effectively, you can find little pieces that are similar and combine them to synthesize the final picture, which should result in higher quality,” Pharr explained. Imagine a camera that automatically takes ten rapid shots. Using those ten shots, the camera can create a picture better than any of the individual, original shots. As Pharr put it, imagine a camera that uses multiple group shots to create a photo in which everyone is smiling and has their eyes open. Though Pharr has not worked in computational photography prior to Google, he is excited to jump right in. “I wanted to get involved in this new field,” Pharr said.

Throughout his successive accomplishments, Pharr never seemed to lose his sense of humor and eye for adventure. On his website, he remarks, “one of my greatest accomplishments yet may well be my decisive victory in the first annual Fantasy Graphics League.” (The Fantasy Graphics League, he explains, is the equivalent of a fantasy football league for programmers.) And of course, in addition to his humor, his curiosity and desire to continue learning about new fields has never wavered.

Elena Malloy
By Elena Malloy July 1, 2014 20:57