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The Story Behind Computer Graphics: Principles and Practice And Its Influence In The Field

Click the links that follow for more news items about Andy van Dam, John Hughes, and Brown Faculty Accomplishments

Originally published in 1982, Fundamentals of Interactive Computer Graphics quickly became a bestseller in its field. Widely recognized as one of the most comprehensive works to ever cover this subject, this book has been read by countless individuals and become a standard computer graphics textbook. 29 years later, the third edition, written by John Hughes (Spike), Andries van Dam, Morgan McGuire (Spike’s PhD student), David Sklar (Andy’s MSc student), James Foley, Steven Feiner (Andy’s PhD student), and Kurt Akeley, Computer Graphics: Principles and Practice remains an authority in the field. With the two series’ selling hundreds of thousands of copies, this latest edition carries the mantle from the hugely popular original text.

“It’s hard to imagine a time where computing as we know it didn’t exist,” explains Andy as he describes the origins of the first edition of the book, “and the idea that you could sit at a console and interact graphically with information was beyond radical.” In the 1960’s, the standard method of computing was via punch cards, which were thin pieces of cardboard which contained digital data represented only by the presence and absence of holes in specified positions. These cards would be run through a card reader, and this pattern of batch computing existed well into the 1970’s. “Interacting graphically with visual information was science fiction,” laughs Andy as he remembers the beginning of his work with graphics in the mid-sixties.

“When I was in grad school, I had a life-altering experience,” describes Andy, “when I saw a movie of Ivan Sutherland’s ‘Sketchpad’. It showed interactive computer graphics for the first time, and was a precursor to the drawing programs we see so commonly today.” It was this experience that motivated Andy to really begin his work on graphics, which he eventually wrote his PhD dissertation on. This expertise eventually led to his writing of Fundamentals of Interactive Computer Graphics along with James Foley, but the field was beginning to progress at a lightning pace.

“When the first edition was written, devices that could display images were rare,” remarks Spike (lead author of the latest edition), “and you had to work with a text-only terminal; displaying images was done on a separate special device.” But a few years after the first edition was published, the first Macintosh computer was released and standard workstations with displays began to be commonplace.

By the time the authors started working on the third edition, Spike explains, “A lot of years had passed, and it was pretty clear that computer graphics was changing in a big way. The approach of the previous edition was not really the right starting point to go from.” With the field advancing at such a rapid pace, it became clear that the text needed to be updated from the ground-up to keep up with the times. Even compared to the second edition, the third edition is much more mathematically rigorous, and the material has been developed from its foundation in a far more sound and principled manner. “When I was first learning about computers, everyone who messed with computers had a complete understanding of transistors, resistors, and flip-flops. The same kind of transformation has happened in graphics: the very foundation from which we start in this field has changed,” says Spike as he illustrates the purpose behind this updated edition.

This approach, however, came with its own set of challenges. With computer graphics expanding exponentially over the past decades, it became virtually impossible to truly cover everything in the field. “I wanted to cover a lot more material than I possibly could,” remembers Spike, “and I needed to reset my ambitions.” This challenge wasn’t easy to overcome. “I would often finding myself writing down a bunch of stuff, then realizing that I said way too much and having to edit down,” he described. And with so much material (1200 pages), completing this edition took self-discipline and resolve.

But with so much effort going into this book, there needed to be something that really tied everything together, that captured the essence of the text elegantly and effectively. And what better way to accomplish this than through the cover? “Andy has always loved Ratatouille,” explains Spike, “and his favorite pictures came from that movie.” But getting approval to use a licensed Disney image is no easy feat, often requiring miles of paperwork. It was a stroke of luck then, perhaps, that Andy happened to be good friends with Ed Catmull (the new head of Disney Feature Animation at the time). “I had known Ed for decades,” Andy reminisces, “and many of my own students peopled the early ranks of Pixar employees.” Within weeks, Pixar provided the distinctive image that now graces the cover of the newest edition, a fitting finishing flourish for an iconic text.

For more information, click the link that follows to contact Brown CS Communication Outreach Specialist Jesse Polhemus.