By Anna Lynn Spitzer
Irvine, November 24, 2014 —
Sung-Jin Kim may have majored in math as a university undergraduate, but even he couldn’t have calculated the way his experiences would add up.
Arriving at UC Irvine in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree from Korea University and a master’s from the University of Chicago, the Korean-born Kim planned to earn a doctorate in engineering, and then return to his native country to teach. His mother had been a middle-school English teacher and is currently working on a Ph.D.; his father was a university professor, who directed a foundation that gave top students scholarships to study abroad. From a very early age, Kim says, he knew exactly in what direction his career path was leading.
Or so he thought.
“I had been seeing this practically since I was born,” he says. “Bright students going to the U.S. and coming back with Ph.Ds. My whole life, it just seemed the natural thing to do. It was kind of expected, actually.”
But along the way to his doctoral degree in electrical engineering and computer science, Kim discovered two things that would change his mind and ultimately, his career choice. One: he didn’t have a passion for teaching. “I realized I’m not really very good at it and I didn’t like administrative aspects of the job,” he says.
More importantly, perhaps, he recognized where his passion did lie: with a technology he had helped create during his graduate studies – a software platform that requires nothing more high-tech than a personal computer, some monitors and an available network to create and display spectacularly detailed, ultra-high-resolution, three-dimensional images and streaming video across an endless number of adjacent screens.
That software, along with a couple of forward-thinking business partners, a receptive market and some support from Calit2, has propelled Kim into the role of successful entrepreneur. The co-founder and chief technology officer of Hiperwall, Inc., he guides the multimillion-dollar company’s product development strategy.
The idea was conceived in 2005 and born as a research project in the Calit2 Building’s second-floor Visualization Lab. At the time, the distributed visualization, grid-based display called HIPerWall was the world’s highest-resolution display wall. With 200 million pixels – and custom software and middleware – it allowed researchers to visualize and manipulate massive data sets in stunning detail.
Two UCI assistant professors, Stephen Jenks and Falko Kuester, designed the wall and obtained National Science Foundation funding. Graduate student Kim developed the original software that displayed interactive, high-resolution imagery, and later videos and other content, on the wall.
Kim received his doctoral degree in 2006, and found himself smack up against a not-uncommon existential dilemma. “I was trying to decide if I should go looking for a job or continue what I had started,” he says. “I knew this could be more, that this technology had a lot of potential.”
The wall won. Knowing that Calit2’s mandate was to help researchers turn innovative technology into commercial success stories, Kim began working as a postdoctoral researcher/scientist at the institute.
Kuester eventually left for UC San Diego, but Jenks and Kim kept refining the software and improving its capabilities. “Sung-Jin was very dedicated to making his software more capable and flexible, while being completely open to integrating the components I was developing,” says Jenks, Hiperwall co-founder and chief scientist. “He had a habit of working overnight to develop and implement an idea we had come up with the day before. I would arrive in the morning and he would show off a new capability.”
Researchers clamored to use the system, and visitors to the Calit2 Building wanted to know how they could buy one. Thus was planted the seed of potential commercialization.
“This support from Calit2 was very valuable, because Sung-Jin could dedicate his efforts to greatly enhancing the capabilities of the HIPerWall software, and could support the many demonstrations and visitors that came to see the system on an almost daily basis,” Jenks says.
Joerg Meyer was a UCI engineering assistant professor in Calit2’s Visualization Lab who worked closely with Kim. Currently a principal systems engineer at Magic Leap, Inc., Meyer calls Kim “the mastermind” behind many of the advanced features of the Hiperwall system. “He conceptualized many of the early features and converted the system from a proof-of-concept prototype into a consumer-grade product.”
2007 was a pivotal year. Kim developed a groundbreaking program that allowed Google Earth satellite images to be displayed interactively on the wall. The project was featured in a variety of media outlets, including a live feed from CNN’s “American Morning;” a story on Spanish-language television station Univision; and an article in the Los Angeles Times.
“On the night before CNN did its live broadcast, Sung-Jin stayed in the lab all night making the code faster and more stable so it looked perfect on live TV,” Jenks recalls. “Everything went off without a hitch.”
Also in 2007, the researchers acquired a couple of significant acquaintances. Samsung USA, whose domestic operation was headquartered in Irvine, approached the HIPerWall team about using the software to power its own display-wall products. Around the same time, Jenks and Kim were introduced to Jeff Greenberg, a UCI alumnus who specialized in commercializing academic technology. The trio began discussing a spinoff, and Hiperwall, Inc. (the spelling was changed to differentiate the company from the academic version) debuted in February 2008, with co-founder Greenberg as CEO.
Kim and Jenks are a well-oiled software-development machine. “I do more the visualizing part and Steve does more the distributed computing part,” Kim says. “The end result is that the two parts sync; they work very well together.” Version 4.0 is on deck for release later this year.
Duy-Quoc Lai, a Hiperwall software engineer, has worked with Kim since 2007, when Lai was a graduate student in the Visualization Lab. “Whatever Sung-Jin sets his mind on doing, he does it to the best of his ability. He is very meticulous,” Lai says. “Sung-Jin foresees potential problems, and handles these issues before they become bugs.”
Software bugs are not the only critters Kim is trying to head off. He and his wife, Kyongboon Oh, bought a house recently in a Southern California subdivision. “Being a homeowner is the craziest thing,” he laughs. “I have lived in apartments my whole life. Now I’m like ‘Oh my god, there’s ants in the yard!’ Our biggest concern is how we can maintain the lavender plants.”
Some days, Kim feels the stress of running a startup company, but he reminds himself how fortunate he is. “I try to remember to be more grateful,” he reflects. “I am living the American dream. I’m extremely lucky to be in this position.”
As for his parents, they’re adjusting well. Initially surprised and a bit disappointed at their son’s career divergence, they “understood that I had to try this,” Kim says. “In their hearts, they want me to come back to Korea but they understand what I’m doing and why I’m staying. They’re happy I’m doing something I like and that I’m having some success.”