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Up close with Rubaiat Habib: The Bangladeshi researcher who wants to democratize the power of animation

  • Published at 06:33 am August 8th, 2021
Rubaiat Habib working at Autodesk Research on a fabrication project (how to represent animation in 3D printed objects) in 2015 Collected

Rubaiat Habib's accolades include an Emmy Award in 2019, Best iPad App for 2016, and numerous others

The world of technology couldn’t help but notice Rubaiat Habib when his research in animation and dynamic drawings turned into new products -- reaching a global audience -- including Sketchbook Motion that was crowned as the best iPad app of 2016 by Apple. 

As an attempt to communicate scientific ideas with storytelling and art, he wrote his PhD thesis in the form of comics, a novelty in itself.  

And in 2019, the Bangladeshi-born research scientist bagged an Emmy Award in the Engineering Emmy category, bestowed by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in recognition of excellence in American primetime television programming. 


Way back in 2007, his home audience must’ve already had a clear hint of Rubaiat’s talent when his team produced -- Vakhkhosh, a graphic adventure novel first of its kind in Bangladesh. 

Story of friendly vegetarian monsters and an ousted poor man in an imaginary kingdom in the deepest of jungles became an instant bestseller and a hit among the comic lovers. Vakhkhosh was published from the house of Unmad, Bangladesh’s hugely popular comic magazine.   

Rubaiat Habib holding Emmy Award Collected

The Seattle-based Rubaiat Habib is now working as a Senior Research Scientist at Adobe Research, where he designs and develops computing tools that facilitate powerful ways of thinking, design, and communication with sketching and gestures. Prior to Adobe, he worked at Autodesk Research, Microsoft Research, and Japan Science & Technology Agency.

He completed his PhD from National University of Singapore in 2014 and BSc from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) in 2007. Rubaiat received several awards for his work including two ACM CHI Best Paper Nominations, ACM CHI and ACM UIST Peoples’ choice best talk awards, ACM CHI Golden Mouse awards for best research videos, and Microsoft Research Asia PhD fellowship.

Rubaiat’s research interest lies in the intersection of Human Computer Interaction (HCI), gestures and sketching in augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) and graphics for creative thinking, design, art, and storytelling. 

In a recent email encounter, I asked Rubaiat about the jobs at hand that he is excited about now. He said they create new algorithms and interfaces to extract, analyze, model, and render 2D and 3D geometry, material, lighting, and appearance for a variety of applications. 

Their efforts now include new forms of 3D drawing and painting, 3D computational capture and imaging, as well as advanced photorealistic rendering algorithms using machine learning, Rubaiat adds.  

Animation and interactivity -- next frontiers of digital design

Rubaiat said he has dual responsibilities of research and product development.

On the research side, he is now working on new types of presentation and storytelling techniques (ie, RealitySketch, Oriel). Usually, these works are published in top tier computer science conferences as academic journals. Often, these research explorations turn into future products (like Adobe Character Animator).

On the product side, Rubaiat is working with product teams on bringing entirely new animation capabilities in Adobe’s drawing and painting tools like “Adobe Fresco.” 

“I’m very excited about this, since it’s a big leap from 2D painting and design tools. I believe that animation and interactivity are the next frontiers of digital design and painting tools.” 

Rubaiat Habib received two best talk awards in two global computer science conferences – ACM CHI and ACM UIST – both in 2014 Collected

The Emmy experience

Rubaiat said the Engineering Emmy recognizes groundbreaking contributions that bring new workflows, tools, and capabilities that were not possible before. 

“We received the Emmy recognition for Character Animation, which we developed for years at our Adobe Research group. The principal idea is that how we can animate our hand drawn drawings, there were enormous challenges to animate the 2D flat artworks but, thanks to our talented mathematicians, engineers, and researchers that we managed to develop the novel technique of Character Animation.”

Vakhkhosh -- the birth of the monsters

When Rubaiat was in high school, he was a big fan of Tintin

“The narrative techniques, humour, and visual style deeply inspired me. I always wanted to see world class comics from Bangladesh that had a global appeal.” 

“Fortunately, Mehedi bhai, Zahid Hossain, and GM Tanim shared the same passion with me. Back in 2007, there were not too many graphic novels (even though there were a lot of comic strips). Many publishers felt that the Bangladesh market is not ready for local graphic novels. So, it was an ambitious project. I’m glad it was published, thanks to Ahsan Habib and (late) Sajjad Kabir bhai.”

Rubaiat said they wanted to tell a story that incorporates local culture (ie, lungi) and myths (monsters) with world class storytelling. 

“In the future, I want to get back to this project and work with my friends again. But, like any other creative medium, storytelling is evolving. In the future, we’ll try out new formats (with animation, of course).”

Grateful to Kashem Sir 

Thanks to his physician father’s changing workplaces, the Chittagong-born Rubaiat had his childhood spent in many places from Chittagong to Iran to Rajshahi to Dhaka.  

“All these places gave me a lot of exposure to diverse people, thoughts, and culture.” 

Upon completion of his SSC from Govt Laboratory School, Rajshahi and HSC from Notre Dame College, Dhaka, Rubaiat got himself enrolled at BUET to study Computer Science (CS). 

Rubaiat Habib drawing adventure comics Vakhkhosh in 2006 Collected   

“In BUET days (2002 - 2007), I wasn’t aware of these fields, and didn’t see the connection between my passion (drawing) and profession (computer science). I actually applied to our CS Department head (Abul Kashem sir) to move from Computer Science to Architecture Department. He scolded me and asked to leave his office, in negation. I’m grateful to him for that.” 

He said he always wanted to develop his career as a professional cartoonist. 

“At that time (2008), I felt that there were very limited career opportunities for a living, and that’s when I decided to go abroad and try something else.” 

“During my BUET life, I was into drawing comics and cartoons (along with Mehedi Hoque, Zahid Hossain, and GM Tanim). As a creator, I wish I could give life to my cartoons and characters. I wish my readers would see the same way I see my drawings (in my imagination -- they are laughing, full of life).” 

But, animating his drawings was a very time consuming and tedious task. Then he started looking at computer-generated animated films, and fell in love with the medium. 

“The Pixar Story” documentary really gripped my imagination as a growing adult -- showing how art and technology inspired each other for the development of this new medium. While computer graphics and animation made a lot of progress in the last decade, they are made for professional people (ie, animation studios).” 

Rubaiat said, “If we want to democratize the power of animation for everyone (for instance, artists, designers, engineers, amateurs, hobbyists, journalists), we need a very different perspective, a very different way of thinking about animation and interaction.”

That’s what motivated him in his research in PhD and beyond. 

“I wanted to make animation as easy as sketching and gesturing.”

Creation of Sketchbook Motion 

In 2016, when Rubaiat Habib was working with Autodesk Research, he launched a new product, taking cues from his own PhD research work. That’s the birth of Sketchbook Motion, which got Apple’s best iPad app recognition that year.  

Sketchbook Motion is a drawing app where characters can be animated through sketching at ease. There was no need for a keyframe or timeline in it unlike the other traditional softwares, he explained.   

“It was very well received and it was crowned as Apple iPad App of the Year. This was a big honour, because every year, Apple selects one app among a million other apps in a very competitive landscape. Personally, I think this is bigger than the Emmy for me. It was also nice to receive a personal congratulation email from Autodesk’s CEO and CTO.”   

A PhD in comics form

For many people, writing a PhD thesis is a very time-consuming and boring task. 

“One day, just shooting a random idea, I asked my PhD supervisor what if I submit it in comics form. My supervisor agreed to the idea without any second thought. But as days went by, it occurred to me that producing an adventure comic like Vakhkhosh and preparing a PhD thesis in comics was not the same, it was a laborious task indeed.  

“Anyway, it was a big risk. I was worried whether the university and committee would accept this format or not. But it was absolutely worth it.

“Basically, the motivation was to communicate science with art and storytelling. Moving forward, I remember that it inspired many researchers in my field to try out novel, innovative formats to communicate science and technical concepts.” 

The best advice that Rubaiat wants to give to the younger generation who aspire towards his career is -- “Find out what you love, and love your work. Be the best at it. Allocate dedicated time to learn new things. Continuous learning is absolutely critical for our field. I allocate 20% of my time for learning. Don’t let others (including me) dictate your trajectory. Everyone can carve out a unique career trajectory that didn’t exist before.”

Reaz Ahmad is Executive Editor at Dhaka Tribune

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