A Talk with Computer Graphics Pioneer Ivan Sutherland

Fifty years ago, Sutherland's Sketchpad program broke new ground in computer graphics and user interfaces.

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Ivan Sutherland's groundbreaking Sketchpad program, as demoed 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-like honor given to individuals each year for advanced technology, basic sciences and arts and philosophy. Sutherland, who was born in 1938, isn’t a household name, but there’s nobody more deserving of such as honor. I got to chat with him recently about his work and the prize.

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 MIT Lincoln Laboratory’s TX-2, which had a then-remarkable 64KB of memory.

Fortunately for us, MIT produced a TV show about Sketchpad in 1964, featuring several researchers talking about the software and showing it off. Here it is — and even if you don’t watch all twenty minutes’ worth, I suggest you at least skim ahead to the demo section, which begins at 3:30.

Sketchpad was so clever that it’s still cool today; it must have been unimaginably so almost fifty years ago.

Note that the program is described as “a man actually talking to a computer,” which prompts the interviewer, slightly agog at the idea, to ask “Surely not with his voice?” It wasn’t just computer graphics which were new at the time; the very notion of easily interacting with a computer in real time, without feeding it punch cards or flipping switches, was dazzling. Sutherland’s work influenced that of the people who devised the basics 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 jump-starting a revolution which would go on for decades when he created Sketchpad. “Of course not,” he told me. “The future is very hard to see. I had no idea of what would happen in the future, nor did I think of it much. I just wanted to make nice pictures.”

He did know, however, that he was in a good situation to do interesting things. “I had the great good fortune of the most powerful computer in the world,” Sutherland said. “It had input and output devices suitable for doing 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 to create it. In the late 1960s, the Bell Helicopter Company used low-light cameras to help pilots land at night, and devised a system which turned the camera when the pilot turned his head. Sutherland, by then a professor at the University of Utah, wondered why the camera couldn’t be replaced with a computer. With the assistance of Bob Sproull, he created a gizmo — with the wonderful name The Sword of Damocles — which let a user peer into a computer-generated graphical display which, like Bell’s remote camera, adjusted automatically to head turns.

[image] Sword of Damocles

Courtesy Ivan Sutherland

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

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

In 1968, Sutherland and fellow University of Utah computer-science professor David Evans founded Evans & Sutherland, which commercialized their research through products such as flight simulators. (I still remember having my socks knocked off by 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 pleased him the most, he said “the thing I’m most proud of is my grandchildren.” But then he mentioned an achievement I didn’t even know about: his 1999 book Logical Effort, cowritten with Sproull and David Harris, on designing fast circuits.

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

For decades, faster clockspeeds led to faster processors. But today, Sutherland said, “the clocked paradigm has a huge problem — it doesn’t scale.” He’s researching processor designs which would let each computing task be performed independently at its own pace, an approach which he compates to the civilian economy. Some would describe this as asynchronous computing; Sutherland prefers “self timing,” a phrase he finds more positive.

“I think this business about self timing has huge potential,” Sutherland said. “Self timing is inevitable — the company or the nation that embraces it first will enjoy huge advantages. I suspect that the group that embraces it first won’t speak English, and that worries me.”

As for the the honor of receiving the Kyoto Prize, Sutherland told me that he was particularly delighted by the fact that the Inamori Foundation also provides students with Kyoto Scholarships: “There are prospective awards as well as retrospective awards. The prospective awards — scholarships for young people — are more valuable to society.” Without the National Science Foundation scholarship he received to go to graduate school, he said, he never would 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 next fifty years. I should have remembered, though: Sutherland had already explained to me that he’s not into the prediction game.

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