Interview with computer graphics pioneer Ivan Sutherland

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Ivan Sutherland’s revolutionary Sketchpad program, as demonstrated in 1964

Dr. Ivan Sutherland is the 2012 winner of the Kyoto Prize for Advanced Technology. The award, created by Dr. Kazuo Inamori, founder of not one but two major Japanese companies – Kyocera and KDDI – is a Nobel-type honor given annually to individuals for cutting-edge technology, basic science, arts and philosophy. Sutherland, who was born in 1938, is not a household name, but there is no one more deserving of such honor. I was able to chat with him recently about his work and the price.

In 1963, while a student at MIT, Sutherland created a highly interactive drawing and design program called Sketchpad, at a time when the concept of computer graphics barely existed. It used an oscilloscope for a display, allowed the user to draw with a light pen, and ran on the MIT Lincoln Laboratory’s TX-2, which then had a remarkable 64 KB of memory.

Luckily for us, MIT produced a Sketchpad TV show in 1964, featuring several researchers talking about and showing off the software. Here it is – and even if you don’t watch every twenty minutes, I suggest you at least browse the demo section, which starts at 3:30.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USyoT_Ha_bA&list=PL0UAR1BFZK1m4l0OV2H0mWlKRbHwcL1v2

Sketchpad was so smart it’s still cool today; it must have been unimaginable almost fifty years ago.

Note that the program is described as “a man actually talking to a computer,” prompting the slightly emotional interviewer to ask, “Surely not with his voice?” It wasn’t just infographics that were new at the time; the very idea of ​​easily interacting with a computer in real time, without powering it with punch cards or switches, was dazzling. Sutherland’s work influenced that of people who designed the foundations of the graphical user interfaces we still use today, including mouse inventor Douglas Engelbart and Xerox PARC researchers such as Alan Kay.

[image]    Ivan Sutherland
Inamori Foundation

Sutherland with his Kyoto Prize

I asked Sutherland if he knew he was starting a revolution that would last decades when he created Sketchpad. “Of course not,” he told me. “The future is very hard to see. I had no idea what would happen in the future, and I didn’t think much about it. I just wanted to take some nice pictures.

He knew, however, that he was in a good position to do some interesting things. “I was very lucky to have the most powerful computer in the world,” Sutherland said. “It had input and output devices suitable for making graphics. I had access to it for hours at a time.

For someone who denies being able to see into the future, Sutherland has a remarkable record of helping create it. In the late 1960s, the Bell Helicopter Company used low-light cameras to help pilots land at night and designed a system that rotated the camera when the pilot turned his head. Sutherland, then a professor at the University of Utah, wondered why the camera couldn’t be replaced by a computer. With the help of Bob Sproull, he created a gadget – with the wondrous name The Sword of Damocles – that allowed a user to look into a computer-generated graphical display which, like Bell’s remote camera, automatically adjusted to head sizes.

[image]    Sword of Damocles
Courtesy of Ivan Sutherland

Sutherland’s Sword of Damocles, carried by University of Utah student Donald Vickers

“The name virtual reality could be applied,” he said, correctly, “but it didn’t appear until ten years later.”

In 1968, Sutherland and David Evans, professor of computer science at the University of Utah, founded Evans & Sutherland, which commercialized their research through products such as flight simulators. (I still remember having my socks knocked off by the one I saw at the SIGGRAPH conference in Boston in 1989.) The company remains in business today as a manufacturer of digital projection systems for planetariums.

When I asked Sutherland which of his accomplishments he liked the most, he replied, “The thing I’m most proud of is my grandchildren. But then he mentioned an accomplishment I didn’t even know about: his 1999 book Logical effortco-authored with Sproul and David Harris, on designing fast circuits.

In fact, Sutherland’s research is currently focused on achieving a great leap forward in circuit design by abandoning one of the fundamental facts of almost all processors: they perform tasks synchronously, at a rate governed by the processor clock.

For decades, faster clock speeds have led to faster processors. But today, Sutherland said, “the clocked paradigm has a huge problem – it doesn’t scale.” He studies processor designs that would allow each computing task to be performed independently at its own pace, an approach he likens to civilian economics. Some would describe this as asynchronous computing; Sutherland prefers “self-synchronization”, a term he finds more positive.

“I think this self-synchronizing business has huge potential,” Sutherland said. “Self-synchronization is inevitable – whichever company or nation adopts it first will reap enormous benefits. I suspect the group that kisses her first won’t speak English, and that worries me.

As for the honor of receiving the Kyoto Prize, Sutherland told me that he was particularly delighted that the Inamori Foundation also offers students Kyoto scholarships: “There are prospective awards as well as retrospective awards. The potential rewards – scholarships for young people – are more valuable to society. Without the National Science Foundation scholarship he received for graduate school, he said, he would never have won the Kyoto prize.

I couldn’t end a conversation with one of the fathers of computer graphics without asking him where he thought the field might go in the following fifty years. I should have remembered, though: Sutherland had already explained to me that he was not in the game of predictions.

“You’d have to ask someone who’s 25, not someone who’s 74,” he told me politely but firmly. “I haven’t done an infographic in the last 35 years. I’m just doing my thing and having fun.

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