Brainiac Corner with Michael Holroyd

Posted by VividCortex on May 5, 2014 7:19:00 AM

The Brainiac Corner is a format where we talk with some of the smartest minds in the system, database, devops, and IT world. If you have opinions on pirates, or anything else related, please don’t hesitate to contact us.


Today, we interview Michael Holroyd, a Charlottesville technologist who has formed at least two tech startups, including Arqball and Knollop. Michael is also the Chairman for the Blue Ridge Mountain Rescue Group non-profit which provides search and rescue services for the Virginia area.

How did you get from stork to brainiac (i.e. what do you do today and how did you get there)?

For my Ph.D. I designed and built an extremely accurate system for measuring the 3D shape and appearance of objects, where we measured the error in our geometry on the same scale as the width of blood cells, and created computer generated renderings that are difficult to distinguish from real photographs. As with many graduate student projects, the system is too complicated and expensive for most people outside the research community to use. When I graduated, I really wanted to do something in the computer vision/graphics space that would reach more people.

So, I wrote an NSF SBIR grant to bootstrap research on interactive visualizations for mobile devices, and partnered with two UVA CS professors to grow a Charlottesville based research and product company - Arqball. We’ve created several iOS apps related to interactive photography and social media, license our technology to digital textbook companies, and also work on long-term research projects related to 3D reconstruction and video analytics.

What is in your group’s technology stack?

Our core infrastructure is mostly written in node.js, our front-end web stuff is mostly Javascript with some Rails, and our video/image processing code is mostly C++. We use MongoDB for small projects (iOS apps) and Postgres/Redis for larger projects. We’ve recently started building a large image search acceleration project in Go and have been enjoying it. Sublime Text for our editor of choice.

Who would win in a fight between ninjas and pirates? Why?

Ninja-robot-pirates will reign supreme. I don’t think I need to explain why.

How can we better foster Charlottesville’s technology culture?

One way is by supporting local tech meetups and building a community around Charlottesville startups. Co-working events are also a great way to network and spread tech knowledge locally. I think we can do better at sharing what is going on locally outside of Charlottesville (making videos and slides from meetups available for example), and also promoting travel to tech conferences around the country. Hiring developer talent in Charlottesville is still a challenge, but word seems to be getting out that this is a growing tech hub.

In six words or less, what are the biggest challenges your organization faces?

Context switching versus focused projects

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Careful visualization is the key to gaining insight into a problem – I have often struggled with a problem for days, and then after coming up with the correct visualization the solution was obvious.

What principles guide your expertise in your given domain?

  • Always be learning something new.
  • Any big system has to be coded up twice, don’t waste too much time designing the “perfect system” on a whiteboard.
  • Resist the urge to use unprincipled heuristics even if they appear to work - learn these from the data directly.
  • Resist the urge to optimize code until you have a good reason to.

How will your company change the world in the next 5 years?

Soon we will live in a world where the tools for understanding images and video will be just as powerful as those we currently use for understanding text. This will be both an awesome thing (navigation, city-scale 3D models, augmented reality, security) and a terrifying thing (privacy, discrimination, marketing). Arqball will be on the cutting edge of this wave and hopes to shape the future of how we interact with these technologies for the best.

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