Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Shape of Shape Analysis Research: Part I

Shape analysis is a topic that is almost a killer app for computational geometry. Where the word 'almost' comes in is an interesting story about the tension between computational power and mathematical elegance.

Shape analysis is defined by the generic problem:
Given two (or more) shapes, determine whether they are similar.
Simple, no ? I don't need to list the applications for this problem. Or maybe I should: computer vision, computational biology, graphics, imaging, statistics, computer-aided design, and so many more.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that in many ways, shape analysis is as fundamental a problem as clustering. It's a problem that people have been studying for a very long time (I heard a rumor that Riemann once speculated on the manifold structure of shapes). Especially in the realm of biology, shape analysis is not merely a way to organize biological structures like proteins: it's a critical part of thinking about their very function.

Like any problem of such richness and depth, shape analysis has spawned its own ecology of concepts. You have the distances, the transformation groups, the problem frameworks, the feature representations, the algorithms, and the databases. You now even have the large data sets of very large shapes, and this brings nontrivial computational issues to the forefront.

Shape analysis (or shape matching) has been a core part of the computational geometry problem base for a long time. I've seen papers on point pattern matching from the late 70s. There's been a steady stream of work all through the past 30 years, introducing new concepts, distances and algorithm design principles.

In parallel, and mostly within the computer vision community, there have been other efforts, focused mainly on designing more and more elegant distance measures. Computer graphics got in on the action more recently as well, with a focus on different kinds of  measures and problems.

What I think is unfortunate (and this is entirely my own opinion) is that there's a strong disconnect between the developments happening in the computational geometry community, and the parallel efforts in the more 'applied' communities.

I'm not merely talking about lack of awareness of results and ideas. I believe there are fundamentally different ways in which people go about attacking the problems of shape analysis, and I think all sides could benefit greatly from understanding the strengths of the others.

Specifically, I think that within our community, we've focused for far too long on measures that are easy to define and relatively easy to compute (while not being trivial to work with). On the more 'math/vision' side, researchers have focused much more on measures that have the 'right' kind of mathematical structures, but have bailed miserably on computational aspects.

Over the next post or two, I want to develop this argument further, and hopefully end with a set of problems that I think are worthy of study both from their intrinsic appeal and the unsolved computational issues they present.

Stay tuned....

p.s The clustering series will also continue shortly. Oh do I love summer :)
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