Not Your Average Internship: A Brush with Greatness

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Pick up a tablet with Adobe Photoshop Sketch and your finger becomes more than a pressure-sensitive stylus — it’s more like an artist’s brush flowing across canvas in expressive strokes, every one unique. Much of this was made possible by research that started with an Adobe intern.

Cynthia (Jingwan) Lu, a research design expert in Adobe’s research lab, was an intern not once, but four separate times.

Her research, called RealBrush technology, fuels three new brushes in Adobe Photoshop Sketch that were released at the end of May — Soft Pastel, Thick Acrylic and Ink Brush. RealBrush is a powerful new brush simulation technology that allows anyone to create unique and realistic brush patterns while drawing with a stylus, or even a finger on a tablet.

Cynthia explains, “Most commercial brush tools create a repetitive effect because they sample a small, uniform texture around the user-drawn path, and it ends up looking uniform and artificial. But with RealBrush we were able to utilize machine learning to synthesize new brush strokes based on already captured data from brush strokes on real canvas. It allows us to create a much more natural and organic effect, based on a few example strokes made by the artist — each one will actually be unique.”

You could argue that RealBrush actually began with a paper on a related idea presented at SIGGRAPH in 2012. The paper, co-authored by Cynthia, several other academics at Princeton and an Adobe researcher was titled HelpingHand: Example-based Stroke Stylization, and explored ways of synthesizing full, 6-degree stylus movement from more basic input methods such as finger on a tablet or mouse input.

“Overall my research theme is how to use data to help users create new things. Working with hand gesture data, to better synthesize a 6D stylus eventually led to the RealBrush idea. We wondered if we could use some of those same techniques to synthesize brush strokes as well,” says Cynthia.

Cynthia found Adobe’s approach to internships uniquely valuable. Especially important to her was the ability to work on Adobe-focused research as an intern, but carry the learning back with her into the academic environment, where she could continue to publish, promote and improve her work.

“Adobe’s culture was very attractive to me, and one of the key reasons I returned for multiple internships and eventually joined Adobe full time. In addition to the ability to meet more people and get inspired by their work, Adobe’s collaborative approach to IP makes it easier to publish; and as a PhD student, you want papers. This same philosophy meant I could continue the work at the end of each internship back at the university, and develop my research over time.”

Cynthia advanced the work and eventually published the foundational paper for RealBrush at SIGGRAPH 2013 — RealBrush: Painting with Examples of Physical Media — as well as several other papers detailing technology for applying decorative patterns in 2014 and textures to brush strokes in 2015.

When she returned to Adobe as a full-time researcher, she eventually began working with a product group to take RealBrush from a research idea into a full-blown, customer-ready, product feature. “Research is often focused on novelty in algorithms,” she elaborates, “but product-driven research has more practical constraints. You have to consider computational power and memory specs, for example. You have to think smarter, be efficient and make compromises to gain performance.

I enjoy both: they’re both very critical. At first you need to think outside of the box. ‘How do I make it happen?’ Then, when you start to focus on product you think, ‘How do I make this fast, efficient, reliable, intuitive?’”

Today, Cynthia continues to live Adobe’s collaborative research ethic in a new way, with her own student interns. “As a full time researcher, I’d say that I easily spend 30% of my time collaborating with professors and students at universities world-wide, and I’ll have four interns over the summer and another in the fall. I’m really looking forward to seeing what kind of energy and new thinking they’ll bring to our lab,” she adds.

Some of our most amazing technology advancements likely started with an intern or university collaboration project. Check out some of the other stories in this series, which shares how interns are the secret to a thriving research lab.

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