Johnny Lee named Top Innovator

Human-Computer Interaction Institute alumnus Johnny Lee has been named one of Technology Review magazine’s Top 35 Innovators Under 35.

Lee became well known through YouTube videos, which he used to document his projects and share them with a large audience — his Wiimote videos received more than 6.7 million unique hits.

Lee famously looked at a Wiimote and realized that the heady amount and quality of technology inside the plastic controller could be used for a variety of applications, such as an electronic whiteboard.

Wiimotes contain infrared cameras that track infrared light. Lee took that capability and created numerous applications out of it.

He added infrared LEDs to the tip of a pen, so that whatever he wrote or clicked on in a projected image of his computer screen would be picked up by the Wi-mote, connected via Bluetooth to the computer. The computer interpreted the input from the Wiimote through software that Lee created.

Lee has worked a lot on using light projectors to emit an image, say from his computer or cell phone, onto whatever surface he wanted, like a desk, wall, or even a fan. Often, however, the image gets distorted if the surface is moved and the projector needs to be recalibrated, which can be time consuming. Lee and his colleagues invented an easy way for projectors to automatically calibrate the image and adapt to the surface if it is not flat.

They embedded a light sensor in each corner of the display surface. Light patterns were then projected onto the display surface.

The sensors would pick up the projected light patterns and use them to locate all of the pixels, mapping them.
This entire process takes just a few seconds.

Then, the computer knows the contours of the display surface and can project the image in real time even as that surface moves.

Lee puts a personal premium on devising solutions that require few resources. “If I am capable of creating a cheap solution, that means I am able to just hand it off to someone and they have all the capabilities of doing it themselves,” Lee said. “So there’s an opportunity to impact other people by giving a cheap solution. If I give them a solution that costs $1 million, I can’t really help them.”

Lee’s inexpensive alternatives are very robust and he will not trade quality for affordability.
Aside from wanting to give people access to technology, Lee’s research philosophy stems from practical concerns. Years ago, a poor student and filmmaker by hobby, Lee needed some way of stabilizing his camera so it wouldn’t wobble when he did moving shots.

Instead of buying multi-thousand-dollar professional equipment, Lee threw some bolts and pipes together and invented the $14 Steadycam. Videos and more information about Lee’s projects can be found at

Lee was thrilled to join Technology Review’s list of past top innovators, which includes people like School of Computer Science professor Luis von Ahn, a 2007 recipient.

“I was definitely very flattered,” he said. “I was honored to be a part of the alumni because I know several people who have been on the list, and they’ve all done great work.”

Lee graduated from the Human-Computer Interaction Institute this spring. He spent seven years working on his degree and many side projects. “I really enjoyed my time at Carnegie Mellon, so I wasn’t in a big rush to graduate,” he added.

Lee’s award comes as no surprise to his former HCII adviser, Scott Hudson.
“Johnny was definitely a very unique individual, a very inventive person, and you have to realize that’s in the context of CMU and the School of Computer Science, which is full of very bright, inventive people,” Hudson said. “He would often look at the same thing lots of other people had looked at and see something different, and I think that is the sign of somebody who is really truly exceptional.”

According to Hudson, Lee was the ideal HCII student. The interdisciplinary field of human-computer interaction, Hudson said, is a three-legged stool of computer science, design, and behavioral science.

Lee came to Carnegie Mellon from the University of Virginia with a computer engineering degree, but also a strong background in psychology.

He also is adept at photography and filmmaking and did professional design work to help get himself through school.

“He’s a triple threat,” Hudson said. “Usually you don’t find people that cover all three. We usually find one, sometimes we find a little in two. He had them all.”