College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Applying ME concepts to create a metaverse

A student smiles for the camera. He is wearing a grey collared shirt
A student smiles for the camera. He is wearing a grey collared shirt

Even though he still has one more semester before completing his doctorate, Yi Zheng already has his post-graduate plans figured out.

After completing his studies at the end of the Spring 2022 semester, Zheng, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering (ME), will spend two years serving as a postdoc research scientist for the Facebook Reality Lab in Seattle.

“My responsibilities will include working on research projects about 3D image system prototyping, optical experimentation and 3D image reconstruction algorithms,” Zheng said.

Zheng works in the lab of Beiwen Li,  William and Virginia Binger Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and said he plans to apply material he learned in Li’s ME 556: Machine Vision course to his postdoc. Specifically, concepts such as image processing, feature detection and 3D reconstructions. He also plans to apply material from ME 557: Computer Graphics and Geometric Modeling as well as ME 625: Surface Modeling, both of which he said have been helpful when creating synthetic data for deep learning-based 3D reconstruction algorithms.

Zheng has served as a teaching assistant (TA) for the lab sections of ME 370: Engineering Measurements and ME 436: Heat Transfer. He has accumulated a number of awards during his time at Iowa State, including a first place finish at the ISU ME Research Symposium, the Graduate and Professional Student Senate Research Award, the College of Engineering Research Excellence Award, the William and Virginia Binger Research Excellence Award, second place at the ISU Graduate Research Poster Presentation, and he had a paper featured on the cover of the journal Géotechnique Letters.

Through his work in Li’s lab, Zheng has published seven first-author papers and six others where he was a secondary-author. He has also served as an invited reviewer for a handful of journals including IEEE Transactions on Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence, Optics Express, Optics Communications, Measurement, Optical Engineering, Measurement Science and Technology, SAE International and Journal of Modern Optics. Zheng’s dissertation will examine how to establish intelligent and robust 3D scanning systems for in-situ applications.

It was an interest in Li’s research that brought Zheng to Iowa State University. Zheng grew up in Jinan, China and studied ME at Chongqing University as an undergraduate. He then pursued a master’s degree in data analytics engineering from Northeastern University, however after learning more about the 3D opticals and machine vision research taking place in Li’s lab, Zheng decided to transfer to Iowa State to pursue his Ph.D. in ME.

“Although at that time, the concept of augmented reality, virtual reality and the metaverse was not as hot as today, I found Dr. Li’s demo on real-time 3D scanning to be very fascinating,” said Zheng. “I thought it was a crucial topic and could be applied in reverse engineering and quality control.”

Zheng said he remembers using video chat services about 20 years ago when the technology was slow, relatively low-quality and expensive. He appreciates that nowadays he can simply use a phone or tablet to communicate with his parents, grandmother, or other friends and family that live on the other side of the world. He is eager to develop this technology further so that those interactions with people will feel even closer.

“I believe with the development of virtual reality, it will be realized soon that you can feel that the people you are talking to are right in front of you. And this is my passion for developing 3D machine vision technology,” Zheng said.

In his free time, Zheng follows the Chinese Basketball Association and often spends his weekends playing pick-up basketball with friends. He also enjoys cooking, which he has learned through watching YouTube videos.

“When I brought my braised beef tongue to a gathering, my friends were really amazed and impressed,” he said.

As Zheng’s time in Ames is wrapping up, he’s had the opportunity to reflect on some of his favorite memories. One that stands out is the trials and tribulations he experiencing while conducting the research and writing for a paper that went on to the published in Optics Express, which was co-authored by Li and Qing Li (no relation), assistant professor in industrial and manufacturing systems engineering.

“During the project, I failed so many times, and the digital twin could not correctly recover the 3D shape of a ball, which was constantly distorting into a bizarre shape,” said Zheng, adding that he worked closely will Beiwen Li to eventually resolve the issue. “I really learned a lot from Dr. Li’s profound insight into 3D machine vision, as well as his leadership skills.”