Innovator Interview: Saeid Nourian

Saeid NourianQ. Where were you born?

A.I was born in northern Iran. I moved to Tehran when I was 7 and to Canada when I was 16. I miss the food and the people of Tehran. I visited Iran three years ago and met a group of distant relatives. Although we had just met, we laughed nonstop. Iranian people have an amazing sense of humor.

Q. When did you become interested in computer science?

A. When I was 12, I saw a movie about a computer that could reply to your questions and it made an impression on me. I bought programming books before I got my first computer. I drew a keyboard and pretended to type code, and my sister wrote down each letter I touched. That’s how obsessed I was with having my first computer!

Q. What was your first program?

A. I wrote a chess game, which got me interested in math and eventually led me to create Graphing Calculator 3D, which has been downloaded by half a million people. I turned that into my startup, which I started when I was an undergrad at the University of Ottawa.

Q. Describe Graphing Calculator 3D.

A. It has powerful data visualizations, which were originally a small feature. Most of my math courses were 2D, so I didn’t think 3D would be popular, but multivariable calculus students loved it. Graphing Calculator 3D is easy to use and produces high-precision 3D graphs in real time. Once you plot, you get smooth 3D transitions. There’s a free version and a paid version.

Q. Where did your love of programming intersect with formal education?

A. We didn’t have computers or computer classes in my school. I took computer classes outside of school. After my dad bought me my first computer, I learned on my own. I took some computer courses in high school, but they were too easy. University instructors focused on software from an algorithm or design perspective. They assumed programming was something you learn on your own.

Q. Tell us about your interest in virtual reality.

A. I got into virtual reality when I worked for a professor for a summer after my sophomore year. He asked me to stay in his lab, and I did my master’s and Ph.D. with him. I designed my own physics engine in a 3D virtual environment.

Q. What’s the potential of VR for learning?

A. Training is the most popular application of virtual reality, which immerses you in an environment. One of my Ph.D. projects was a surgery simulation, training surgeons to do cataract eye surgery with haptic feedback—when your knife makes an incision through tissue, you feel resistance.

Q. You’ve brought your 3D perspective to Energy3D.

A. Students can design a house within a few minutes and learn the basics of energy efficiency. Students modify their house to make it more efficient, for example, by putting windows on the South-facing wall or changing the insulation material. Then they add solar panels and run a simulation to see how good their design is.

Q. What’s exciting about students using this software?

A. Students get very creative and push the software to its limits. They also demonstrate more interest in engineering. There’s a competition among students to make the coolest design and the most energy-efficient house.

Q. What’s the future of Eneryg3D?

A. Our plan is to make it more collaborative, where students design houses in a shared virtual environment. We want to foster excitement for science, engineering, and collaboration, plus a sustainable energy-efficient future.

Q. What’s interesting about working here?

A. The Concord Consortium encourages freedom of thinking and proposing your own ideas. It’s a universe of experiments.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant DUE-1304485. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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