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CMU grad wins praise for Wii inventions

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By Mark Houser
Thursday, Aug. 21, 2008

Johnny Lee has done more with his Wii than just about anybody.

After just a few days of tinkering with the Nintendo game's motion-sensitive controller, the Carnegie Mellon University graduate became a YouTube hit, was asked to speak at an ultra-exclusive California conference and has been named one of the world's most influential young innovators.

Lee, 28, said his discovery of new uses for the $40 controller -- such as digital "white boards," 3-D monitors and other prototypes sometimes thousands of dollars cheaper than existing technologies -- didn't take a lot of deep thought or hard work.

"It was mostly a procrastination project from working on my thesis," said Lee, who earned a doctorate from CMU's Human-Computer Interaction Institute in the spring and is a Microsoft researcher in Redmond, Wash.

Lee spent a couple days last fall experimenting with the controller's infrared camera, which it uses to track where the user is pointing it. By connecting the controller to his computer, Lee discovered it could track the movement of something besides itself.

He tried mounting a cheap LED on a pointer and soon had an interactive "white board," allowing users to manipulate objects on a computer screen using the pointer. He stuck two LEDs on a pair of safety glasses and soon had a 3-D display with a view that changes as the wearer moves around.

Wearing shiny tape on his fingertips, Lee found he could reflect light back at the controller's eye. That made it possible to move things around on a screen by waving his fingers in the air, much like Tom Cruise does in the film "Minority Report."

"The ideas came out within a single plane flight, and building them took about three days each," he said. "They look deceptively simple because they are deceptively simple."

Millions viewed the video demonstrations Lee posted online. He was asked to speak at the invitation-only Technology Entertainment Design conference in Monterey in February, where Silicon Valley gurus and other celebrities in attendance enthusiastically applauded his creations.

Now Technology Review has put Lee on the magazine's annual list of the 35 most exciting innovators younger than 35.

Luis von Ahn, a CMU computer science professor named to the list last year, praised Lee.

"He is like 'MacGyver' as a full-time inventor. The world would be a better place if there were more people like him," von Ahn said.

The Wii inventions aren't Lee's first. In 2005, he helped design a 45-foot-tall slingshot that launched paint balloons at an East Liberty high-rise scheduled for demolition. His Web site includes plans for making a steadycam mount for $14.

About 600,000 people have downloaded a free program on Lee's personal Web page to make the Wii white board, he said.

Lee is trying to sell his house in Swissvale. He said recent events have been difficult to explain to his Chinese immigrant parents, who run a restaurant in Richmond, Va.

"My parents aren't very tech-savvy, so unless it shows up on the evening news, they have a hard time following what's going on. When I was in TED, I was in the same session as Al Gore, and that's something they can appreciate," he said.

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