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  • Writer's pictureNidhi Chopdekar

Teacher Spotlight - Dr. Nicholas Polys

Dr. Nicholas Polys
Dr. Nicholas Polys. Picture by Ayat Mohammed

Who is Dr. Nicholas Polys?

Dr. Nicholas Polys is an Affiliate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Virginia Tech and teaches classes that include Introduction to Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Media Computation, Graphics, GUI Programming, Information Visualization and Virtual Environments. He has also been recently appointed as Virginia Tech’s Health Sciences Faculty. Additionally, Dr. Polys is also the Director of Visual Computing with the Virginia Tech Research Computing Group and a member of Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Computer Society, and the Web3D Consortium.


Dr. Polys did his B.A in the year 1996 in Cognitive Sciences from Vassar College followed by his Ph.D. in Computer Science from Virginia Tech in 2006. After his undergraduate research, he jumped into the networked information space of the WWW, developing audio, visual, and 3D assets and software. His doctoral work at Virginia Tech examined perceptual cues and layout behaviors for Information-Rich Virtual Environments for desktop to immersive platforms.

Research Work:

Dr. Nicholas Polys’s research comprises information and interaction architectures, particularly the Web3D ecosystem, human computer interaction, and usability engineering in virtual and augmented reality. He also focuses on the cognitive and graphical elements of 3D scientific visualization and medical imaging. Since 1998, Dr. Polys has been developing captivating interactive 3D visualization technologies. He describes his work as the Director of Visual Computing for Virginia Tech Advanced Research Computing (ARC) as an exciting blend of research, mentoring, managing high-performance visualization facilities, and creating web-based and immersive visualizations for the most recent computational science and e-Design applications. Since 1997, he has been creating interactive 3D graphics systems and content. His main areas of interest in terms of study include the junction of visualization, virtual environments, and perception in the context of graphics and Human Computer Interaction. Furthermore, he is the co-author of the international standard (ISO) Extensible 3D (X3D), elected Director and President of the Web3D Consortium, and Chair of the Web3D User Interface Working Group.

Recent Student Achievements:

Dr. Polys indicated that at Virginia Tech, the faculty are constantly evolving the Computer Science curriculum that includes not just the special course topics (since computer technologies move so quickly), but also the course methods. Initiatives like ‘Hands-On, Minds-On' and the Destination Areas have yielded rich-interdisciplinary collaborations and programs. He personally sees a huge variety of opportunities for students to engage in ‘authentic’ project-based learning and make a real impact. He stated, “This has always been true for my Graduate CS classes, but this past academic year we really got into it with the CS Senior HCI Capstone class". He described the class project in further detail. Each student self-selected an ordered preference for the project challenges from the course menu and were then assigned to a project in groups of four. Each HCI challenge came from real research projects around the University. Each group ran the agile process of User-Centered design from requirements to design to prototype to evaluation. The class presented their work at the VT Undergraduate Research Symposium for Computer Science (VTURCS) in the Commonwealth Ballroom in Squires, and all the groups pushed their projects forward with unique innovation.

The two projects that placed in the voting were: Narrating Places and Spatial Audio Designer. Briefly:

Narrating Places is an accessibility concept that uses our computer vision and object detection Web service to translate 2D images and Web3D screenshots of visual scenes from the Web browser into audio narrations by various algorithms; here we focused on the interpretation of YOLO results into grammatical text and then into audible speech through WWW APIs.

Spatial Audio Designer is an online 3D design environment that gives users interactive control over W3C WebAudio sound sources and parameters in a Web3D space. Sound sources can be moved and directed; here we studied the visual representation of sound on geometry in the environment (with a shader) and the sensitivity of manipulations with 3D drags and 2D parameter widgets.

Opportunities for Students:

Dr. Polys heads the Advanced Research Computing Visionarium at Virginia Tech that has various opportunities for students. The Visionarium’s focus is on supporting the adoption of supercomputing and visual analysis tools to advance science, engineering, and education. Its mission is to consult and collaborate with researchers to design, develop, and apply advanced visualization technology. In the Visionarium Lab, technology consulting and resources are provided for computational scientists, designers, and engineers to gain visual insight, collaborate, and publish interactive 3D graphics immersively and over the WWW. Having worked in the Visionarium myself, I would definitely say it is a great place to learn and explore. Dr. Polys has been very supportive and has guided me immensely throughout my time at the Visionarium. He is extremely knowledgeable and is always encouraging his students.

“We invite you to come and learn how Virginia Tech’s world-class resources can catalyze your ideas” - Dr. Polys

Students at the Visionarium
Students at the Visionarium. Picture by Alex Parrish

Hobbies Outside of School:


Dr. Polys plays the banjo and guitar. Additionally he sings and writes songs too. Along with his wife, he was in a Bluegrass band in New York for several years. When they moved down to Blacksburg, they fell in love with the Old-Time music crowd at the local jam session. This region has a rich and welcoming heritage of acoustic music. As he learnt the songs, dance and the people, his band, The Jugbusters, became a local and student favorite. Dr. Polys mentions that he still plays out several times a year. Furthermore, his psychedelic electric project, Timewave Zero, is playing regularly and still has a couple original members from the Grad School days. Besides those louder moments, Fly fishing and boating around the New River watershed is how he explores and embraces the natural landscape around Blacksburg. He expresses how it lowers the blood pressure and he finds many ‘Happy Places’.

“What is the most rewarding thing about your job?”

“I have to plead for two: First, being the first human to see the shape of a 350 million year old fossil or the newest image of flavors and forces inside a Hadron from a particle accelerator. Scientific Visualization is pretty cool. Curiosity’s favorite flavor is ‘Discovery’. Second, when you make a real connection with a student and it’s real enough that they are inspired to keep in touch or send you holiday cards updating you about their life adventures and successes. It helps me remember that the choices we make everyday - the words we say - in the classroom, impacts our culture and our students’ lives pretty directly. That is an honor and a privilege.”

“How did you decide on becoming a teacher?”

“It was never a decision really. I had teachers who got me excited about learning and solving problems; that curiosity and excitement is infectious I think - in a good way! Asking questions, troubleshooting, Discovery, making things work…Somehow it’s in the fiber of my being to share what I think I know and I had good enough teachers to be humble. What was a conscious decision was a personal goal to be a good teacher. That is, to really improve all the aspects by my measures. For example, one must master the mechanics needed to engage a large class, produce weekly insightful lectures and activities that meet learning objectives, work the Learning Management System to execute an equitable course - these are all necessary but to be a good teacher also includes recognizing each students’ gifts and meeting them with challenges that bring out their best.”

“Why Virginia Tech?”

“World-class academics, technology and wilderness, all in one location!

Ut Prosim!”

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