From B-school graduate to research scientist

September 2005

Kevin Chugh

A picture is worth a thousand words. A three dimensional scene, which can be manipulated and even touched, provides far more insight than words ever could.

According to Kevin Chugh ’91, that’s the foundation of Tactus Technologies, a world leader in Virtual Reality and 3-D visualization using state-of-the-art technology such as animation, 3-D real-time computer graphics and a simulated sense of touch called haptics.

Chugh is co-founder of the company and a recent co-recipient of the Inventor of the Year Award in Buffalo last May. He and two other scientists invented a glove embedded with computerized sensors that produce digital output enabling doctors to record changes in a lump over time and share the results with others.

Chugh’s path from B-school graduate to scientist was not a direct one. Though his first job out of college was clerical in nature, Chugh found himself drawn to computer programming. “I didn’t have much training, but I really enjoyed automating business tasks using Lotus 1-2-3 macros,” he says. “That experience enabled me to land a computer support position at Canisius College.”

After a few years, he quit his job and started his first business, MicroEase Technologies, which developed government bookkeeping software. “The business was a near total failure,” says Chugh. “I made a couple of sales, but I realized I was charging $100 for something that was worth much more, and I was foolishly focused on volume.” The business folded after about a year and Chugh went to work at UB’s Graduate School of Education in a technical support role. While there he obtained a master’s degree in computer science part time and then decided to go back to school full time for his PhD.

During the course of his studies, he collaborated with his PhD advisor, Kesh Kesavdas, director the Virtual Reality Lab at UB, and another PhD student, Jim Mayrose. They developed a device that was necessary for their research but didn't exist in the marketplace. They realized that the device had many other uses and obtained a patent for it.

After graduating, Chugh took a position as a research scientist at the New York State Center for Engineering Design and Industrial Innovation (NYSCEDII) at UB, where he had the opportunity to learn a great deal about commercial quality Virtual Reality. But he found himself, once again, yearning for the business world, so in 2001 he formed a start-up company, Tactus Technologies, with Kesavdas and Mayrose. He left NYSCEDII in 2004 to work full time for the new company.

Tactus Technologies offers an array of products and services. In virtual training and education, for example, the company is developing a product called V-Frog™, a virtual dissection platform that can be used by students as a substitute for a physical dissection. V-Frog™ will give students an interactive experience that is as good as or better than what they would get with a real frog specimen. With another technology, Visual Witness™, the company can provide insights into accidents, product failures and other key events and show juries exactly what happened in a way they can easily understand. Tactus also offers virtual prototyping and simulation for products and processes and urban planning and simulation. “We're receiving great interest in the products we're developing, so far, and have been pretty successful with our services,” says Chugh. “Plus, it's really rewarding work.”

Although what he does is highly technical, Chugh explains it in simple terms: “There are a lot of computational techniques that are used to solve problems, and many of them take a long time to run,” Chugh says. “But if you want to make immediate design decisions, you may be willing to compromise some accuracy for speed. My specialty is developing these faster, but less accurate techniques, to do things like build virtual reality surgery training software.

“A student can cut virtual tissue with a virtual scalpel and feel like the response is instantaneous, but the physics of the tissue being cut is slightly inaccurate,” he explains. “Doing the accurate physics might take a few minutes if not a few hours, so for a simulation it's impractical. These ‘time-accuracy’ compromises are necessary to bring expensive VR systems to low cost computers, and I think this is where the real market is, and it’s where I've been focusing my efforts and developing some expertise.”

Chugh considers himself fortunate to have completed a business degree before his technical degrees. “My business degree has helped me to see business opportunities in everything I do,” he says. “I'm surprised at how much my finance training plays into my daily decisions. I never realized how much I actually learned in college. I think about return on investment and net present value all the time, for example, and I'm continually surprised at how much I actually understand it.”

Though Chugh is currently focusing his efforts on Tactus Technologies, he does have some ideas for what he’ll be doing in ten years. “I’d like to do some teaching and maybe I'll entertain a political career of some sort,” he says. “Western New York has no shortage of clever people, and no shortage of capital, but we just can't seem to get on with a post-industrial economy…maybe I'll participate in that process some day instead of just talking about it.”

Chugh and his wife, Heide, live in Amherst with their 4-year-old son, Johnny, and their 1-year-old daughter, Katie.

Written by Jacqueline Ghosen