A Snapshot of Robert Pless

by Helen Do '20 for Silver Quest

“A pointer about the dress code would’ve been fantastic,” said Distinguished Magnet Alumni Robert Pless (Class of ‘90), as he stood on the stage of the 2020 Magnet Research Convention in front of the many Blair seniors wearing suits and dresses. Having graduated from old Blair, Pless was unfamiliar with the new Blair building and the SRP Convention held within it. What he could connect with, however, were the memorable teachers and classes that eventually led to his career in computer vision.

After graduating from Blair, Pless received his Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science from Cornell in 1994, then his PhD from UMD in 2000. At Cornell, he continued to pursue his debate team interests and was the president of a fraternity, finding his niche within the hockey-playing engineers. After earning his PhD, he became a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and conducted research in computer vision before being welcomed to George Washington University.

As the Patrick and Donna Martin Endowed Professor and Chair of Computer Science, Pless has centered his work on computer science, robotics, and environmental science. His main focus is creating image archives using public webcams and phone apps that he has developed.

The Archive of Many Outdoor Scenes (AMOS) is one such project that is meant to “organize… disparate image sources to create coherent global imaging systems that answer important questions facing our society and our planet,” focusing on understanding environmental change and people’s usage of public spaces. TraffickCam and Project rePhoto are apps available on iOS and Android, the former meant to support investigations on sex trafficking using crowdsourced hotel images, and the latter meant to democratize repeat photography.

Outside of academics, Pless played for the Blair tennis team for the entirety of his high school career and competed on the debate team. He noted that debate taught him how to be comfortable talking to strangers and how to structure an argument, which proved helpful in his scientific research career. He also dabbled in various math teams and physics contests.

Reminiscing about Blair, Pless claimed that artificial intelligence could have predicted his career based on his classes—optics, research and engineering, and various computer science electives. He fondly recalled being “a little afraid of Ms. Piper and very intimidated by Bob Donaldson.”

His favorite teachers were chemistry teacher Mr. Robert Gotwals and physics teacher Mr. Ralph Bunday, who were “infectious in [their] enthusiasm,” which carried through to Pless as his STEM interests developed. Mr. Gotwals was also Pless’s faculty mentor for his senior research project, which studied random growth models of snowflakes and simulated their form as they fell.

Some of his favorite projects pertained to calibrating cameras to understand how they’re capturing the world, focusing on determining the location and angle at which images are taken. He has used glitter imaging to study how angles affect light field subsets, rainbows as a natural calibration cue, and his own code to visualize embeddings from deep similarity networks.

Pless has also picked up an interest in art and has since visited numerous art galleries and museums. It was at one of these that he got the idea to study glitter imaging.

When asked about how Blair influenced his life, Pless said, “I think Blair really set me up [to look for the kind of] environments where… the people around you are super motivated.”