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A cluster of big-name high-tech companies is drawing an exciting mix of young people to our neighborhoods and adding to the area’s cachet.
BY BEN KAMBER
Last year, an IBM sign went up on the Squirrel Hill building at the intersection of Forbes and Murray avenues after the company acquired Vivisimo, located inside.
Carnegie Mellon University’s Collaborative Innovation Center in Oakland is home to research facilities for Intel, Apple, and Microsoft.
Founded by three Carnegie Mellon computer science professors in 2000, Vivisimo (meaning lively, bright, or clever in Spanish) is one of the world’s leading data search and analytics providers. Unlike traditional search engine companies that specialize in Internet search, Vivisimo set out to solve the problem faced by large organizations of how to efficiently search and analyze the deluge of data— referred to as “big data”— produced internally. Today, with 90 of its 150 employees working out of its Squirrel Hill headquarters, Vivisimo is one of the biggest names in the big data world. Procter & Gamble, Airbus, Cisco, and the federal government are among its growing list of clients. And the market represents an astounding $6 to $7 billion and is expected to skyrocket to $20 billion in the
azing down from the second-story windows of Vivisimo—a fast-growing enterprise search software company in Squirrel Hill—your eyes are drawn immediately to a striking architectural contrast. Towering above the bustling corner of Forbes and Murray is the Sixth Presbyterian Church, built in the Gothic Revival style popular in the early 20th century. Across the street stands the modern, glass-encased Squirrel Hill branch of the Carnegie Library. Divided by a single intersection, these two properties juxtapose the East End’s venerable past and promising future—a future being shaped by the emergence of a highly creative, techinfused economy that is transforming our neighborhoods. If Pittsburgh is the Silicon Valley of the east, as it is sometimes called, then the East End is its crossroads. Our community is the only place in the world with R&D centers for Google, Disney, Microsoft, Intel, and Apple, all of which are clustered in Oakland and East Liberty. They are among the more than 1,500 information technology companies that have set up shop throughout the region. This tech growth can be attributed in part to the wealth of talent emerging from world-class schools such as the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. But that’s only one part of the story. Companies like Google and Intel also seek dynamic neighborhoods for their operations that offer employees and potential recruits the live-work-play options that fuel creativity and productivity. And that’s surely what we have to offer. Take Vivisimo, which was acquired by IBM last summer.
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next five years, according to Saman Haqqi, big data marketing program director at IBM. But don’t worry—Vivisimo isn't going anywhere. While its colorful logo above the Rite Aid at the corner of Forbes and Murray has been swapped out for IBM letters, Vivismo is committed to staying in Squirrel Hill for reasons that range from close proximity to its university recruiting grounds to the dynamic vibe pulsing in this urban neighborhood. “Young people want to be in an organic, diverse environment, and Squirrel Hill is one of the most diverse areas in the whole region,” says Anne McCafferty, Vivisimo/IBM’s human resources manager, who is responsible for recruitment. Two-thirds of Vivismo employees live within five miles of the office, allowing many to walk, bike, or take public transit to work, she says. “Everybody who comes into our office, partners and prospective employees alike, remarks on the coolness of the location,” says Jerome Pesenti, one of the company’s founders and chief scientist. In turn, the company adds to the multicultural appeal of the neighborhood. Pesenti’s native France is one of 16 countries from which Vivisimo employees hail. This year, the company is creating a coalition of university and public-private sector partners committed to raising Pittsburgh’s profile as a big data leader. “The next wave of new businesses will come out of the big data space, and we want Pittsburgh to have a part in this
Small flags in the Vivisimo/IBM open-air office represent the sixteen countries employees call home.
East End tech titans
The Google flag flies atop this Bakery Square building in Larimer, where the search engine giant leases four floors of office space.
exciting future,” says Haqqi, who is heading the coalition for Vivisimo. “Let’s put our people and our companies on the map as experts in this area at the national level.” Perhaps no big-name tech company has made a larger investment in Pittsburgh than Google did in 2010. Three years ago, the Silicon Valley-based Internet search giant exited its comparatively humble space in the Collaborative Innovation Center at Carnegie Mellon for new digs at Bakery Square near East Liberty. And what digs they are. When Google outgrew its offices at Carnegie Mellon after just four years, it sought a cutting-edge space
in an equally vibrant urban locale where it would have the necessary square footage and flexibility to build out its Pittsburgh operations. The new mixed-use office and retail development at Bakery Square fit the bill in just about every way. Google initially leased 45,000 square-feet on the site’s top two floors and moved in more than 150 employees. Since then, the company has acquired an additional floor, more than doubling its space, and added another 100 “Googlers,” with plenty of room for more. Being close to the Oakland universities was a big factor in Google’s decision to move to Bakery Square. Of equal importance to its
creative class of employees are the urban amenities in the neighborhood—the many restaurants, bars, shops, and residential offerings. Indeed, the location is certainly great, but where Google Pittsburgh really shines is on the inside. From a mesh net conference room resembling a giant hammock to a Potato Patch-themed snack area (fashioned after the iconic Kennywood concession stand) to a chicken coop and beehive (yes, you read that correctly), Google Pittsburgh has sought to create the ideal oasis to inspire and keep its growing gaggle of Googlers happy. (See photo essay on page 108.) There are three meals a day prepared by professional chefs, in-house massage therapy, a bottomless supply of soda and snacks, and a replica rollercoaster car with operating headlight. But Google Pittsburgh executive assistant Cathy Serventi, who joined the company in 2006 as its 20th Pittsburgh employee, makes one point clear. A hip office design and perks alone aren’t what it’s all about. At the end of the day, without meaningful work and likeable, responsive colleagues, work would be a drag—even in such a fun space. As with Google, if you dig below the surface of many Pittsburgh tech success stories, you’ll find a Carnegie Mellon connection. One of those links formed back in 2001, when Intel struck up a partnership with the university to create Intel Research Pittsburgh in Oakland. “The reason that Intel came to Carnegie Mellon was because we intentionally wanted to engage with the best and the brightest faculty and students from a university that has one of the top computer science departments in the world,” says Phillip Gibbons, principal research scientist at Intel Research Pittsburgh,
who has been with the company since it opened here. Gibbons now heads up one of the two Intel Science and Technology Centers, or ISTCs, in Pittsburgh—the ISTC for Cloud Computing; the other is the ISTC for Embedded Computing. These labs, located in Carnegie Mellon’s Collaborative Innovation Center, were established in 2011. Today, Intel has seven ISTCs at elite universities across the nation such as Stanford, Berkeley, and MIT and invests $2.5 million a year in each center. Carnegie Mellon remains the only university with two such centers. What is Intel working on in Pittsburgh? Perhaps not what you might expect of one of the world’s largest computer chip makers.
This AndyVision sign at the Carnegie Mellon University campus store provides real-time inventory information for customers. It is one of the Intel projects in the works just across campus.
One of Intel’s innovations is called AndyVision, a robot and interactive sign designed to revolutionize the shopping experience. A robot scans inventory throughout a store to notify employees, in real time, what merchandise is in and out of stock. This and other useful information is projected on an interactive monitor for convenient customer access. The system is being piloted at Carnegie Mellon’s campus store.
East End tech titans
This Avengers Vybe Haptic Gaming Pad uses technologies developed here in Pittsburgh by Disney Research.
(Photo courtesy of Disney Research/Marvel/Comfort Research.)
On the automotive front, Intel is working on a creating a headlight that can literally see through rain. An embedded computer selectively will turn off the elements of the headlight that hit individual raindrops, which creates glare when driving in a storm. The scientists and engineers working on Pad. The chair, availsuch projects see the advantages of their East able at Walmart.com, End location. “I live in Shadyside, just off of translates a video Walnut Street, and can walk to work game’s audio into through some very nice neighborhoods,” localized, vibration Gibbons says. “It’s a very attractive place to feedback that creates live, and compared to some of my colleagues’ an interactive sensory cost of living in the Silicon Valley, it’s so experience for the user. much more affordable here.” Other projects on tap Apple Pittsburgh has space in the same include creative uses building as Intel, as does the research arm of for 3D printing optics one of the world’s most recognizable media technology and a jugand entertainment companies—Disney. gling robot that takes Since 2008, Disney Research has called human-robot interacPittsburgh home as the site of one of its five tion to the next level. labs. Disney’s Pittsburgh space, which can Also in Oakland, you’ll find the research comfortably hold more than 100 researchers, power of Microsoft at work. post-docs, and interns at any given time, is In March 2006, Jeannette Wing, then located in the former Google Pittsburgh head of Carnegie Mellon’s computer science offices. department, wrote an essay, Computational Disney’s decision to create a research Thinking, for an industry trade journal. Since facility in Pittsburgh had a lot to do with then, her vision elucidated in the piece has set collaborative opportunities with Carnegie Mellon and the university’s world-class academics, according to director Jessica Hodgins. “CMU is a natural fit for Disney because of the areas where the university is so strong, such as The Robotics Institute, the HumanComputer Interaction Institute, and the Machine Learning Department,” Hodgins says. “These are all areas that Disney wants to focus and build on.” From Disney’s myriad parks and resorts to ABC Studios and ESPN, Disney Research supports all the Jeannette Wing business units of the Walt Disney Co. Its Pittsburgh lab, as a result, covers a in motion a movement that is revolutionizing broad range of research areas, including the relationship between computer science computer vision and machine learning, data learning and other fields. mining and RFID sensing, human-comput“It took off,” Wing says. “People read the er interaction, robotics, and haptic sensation article and somehow get inspired by the con(how a person responds to the sense of cept.” touch). The concept Wing refers to is computaWhile the lab’s primary focus is to genertional thinking, which is the creative ate peer-reviewed research, several of its techapproach computer scientists use to solve nologies have gone commercial recently. One problems. To think computationally is to of these is the Avengers Vybe Haptic Gaming think like a computer scientist. Yet, as enig106
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Scientists at Disney Research are currently working on a project with the official title Playing Catch and Juggling with a Humanoid Robot.
matic as that may seem, many of us are already computational thinkers without even knowing it. If you’re able to cook a multicourse meal or chart out a day filled with multiple competing priorities, you’re thinking computationally. Today, academic institutions translate the concepts of computational thinking to noncomputer science courses in disciplines such as journalism and English. And computational thinking, of course, has become fundamental in math and science fields. At the heart of this movement is Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Computational Thinking, a facility that opened in 2007 with a threeyear, $1.5-million sponsorship commitment from Microsoft Research. The funding for faculty and graduate student research was renewed in 2010 for another three years. “A lot of it is about relationship building—building connections and ensuring that there are close ties between Microsoft Research and the university,” Wing says. She is now advocating these methods with even greater influence, as she recently left her Pittsburgh post to become head of Microsoft Research’s international operations. While it’s a loss for Carnegie Mellon and the city, Wing’s move represents further validation of her computational thinking vision—and a demonstration of the impact that the East End’s tech __ SA community is having on the world. __