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The advance in computer graphics was to come from one MIT student, Ivan Sutherland. In 1961 Sutherland created another computer drawing program called Sketchpad. Using a light pen, Sketchpad allowed one to draw simple shapes on the computer screen, save them and even recall them later. The light pen itself had a small photoelectric cell in its tip. This cell emitted an electronic pulse whenever it was placed in front of a computer screen and the screen's electron gun fired directly at it. By simply timing the electronic pulse with the current location of the electron gun, it was easy to pinpoint exactly where the pen was on the screen at any given moment. Once that was determined, the computer could then draw a cursor at that location.
Sutherland seemed to find the perfect solution for many of the graphics problems he faced. Even today, many standards of computer graphics interfaces got their start with this early Sketchpad program. One example of this is in drawing constraints. If one wants to draw a square for example, s/he doesn't have to worry about drawing four lines perfectly to form the edges of the box. One can simply specify that s/he wants to draw a box, and then specify the location and size of the box. The software will then construct a perfect box, with the right dimensions and at the right location. Another example is that Sutherland's software modeled objects - not just a picture of objects. In other words, with a model of a car, one could change the size of the tires without affecting the rest of the car. It could stretch the body of the car without deforming the tires.
These early computer graphics were Vector graphics, composed of thin lines whereas modern day graphics are Raster based using pixels. The difference between vector graphics and raster graphics can be illustrated with a shipwrecked sailor. He creates an SOS sign in the sand by arranging rocks in the shape of the letters "SOS." He also has some brightly colored rope, with which he makes a second "SOS" sign by arranging the rope in the shapes of the letters. The rock SOS sign is similar to raster graphics. Every pixel has to be individually accounted for. The rope SOS sign is equivalent to vector graphics. The computer simply sets the starting point and ending point for the line and perhaps bend it a little between the two end points. The disadvantages to vector files are that they cannot represent continuous tone images and they are limited in the number of colors available. Raster formats on the other hand work well for continuous tone images and can reproduce as many colors as needed.
Also in 1961 another student at MIT, Steve Russell, created the first video game, Spacewar. Written for the DEC PDP-1, Spacewar was an instant success and copies started flowing to other PDP-1 owners and eventually even DEC got a copy. The engineers at DEC used it as a diagnostic program on every new PDP-1 before shipping it. The sales force picked up on this quickly enough and when installing new units, would run the world's first video game for their new customers.
E. E. Zajac, a scientist at Bell Telephone Laboratory (BTL), created a film called "Simulation of a two-giro gravity attitude control system" in 1963. In this computer generated film, Zajac showed how the attitude of a satellite could be altered as it orbits the Earth. He created the animation on an IBM 7090 mainframe computer. Also at BTL, Ken Knowlton, Frank Sindon and Michael Noll started working in the computer graphics field. Sindon created a film called Force, Mass and Motion illustrating Newton's laws of motion in operation. Around the same time, other scientists were creating computer graphics to illustrate their research. At Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, Nelson Max created the films, "Flow of a Viscous Fluid" and "Propagation of Shock Waves in a Solid Form." Boeing Aircraft created a film called "Vibration of an Aircraft."
It wasn't long before major corporations started taking an interest in computer graphics. TRW, Lockheed-Georgia, General Electric and Sperry Rand are among the many companies that were getting started in computer graphics by the mid 1960's. IBM was quick to respond to this interest by releasing the IBM 2250 graphics terminal, the first commercially available graphics computer.
Ralph Baer, a supervising engineer at Sanders Associates, came up with a home video game in 1966 that was later licensed to Magnavox and called the Odyssey. While very simplistic, and requiring fairly inexpensive electronic parts, it allowed the player to move points of light around on a screen. It was the first consumer computer graphics product.
Also in 1966, Sutherland at MIT invented the first computer controlled head-mounted display (HMD). Called the Sword of Damocles because of the hardware required for support, it displayed two separate wireframe images, one for each eye. This allowed the viewer to see the computer scene in stereoscopic 3D. After receiving his Ph.D. from MIT, Sutherland became Director of Information Processing at ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency), and later became a professor at Harvard.
Dave Evans was director of engineering at Bendix Corporation's computer division from 1953 to 1962. After which he worked for the next five years as a visiting professor at Berkeley. There he continued his interest in computers and how they interfaced with people. In 1968 the University of Utah recruited Evans to form a computer science program, and computer graphics quickly became his primary interest. This new department would become the world's primary research center for computer graphics.
In 1967 Sutherland was recruited by Evans to join the computer science program at the University of Utah. There he perfected his HMD. Twenty years later, NASA would re-discover his techniques in their virtual reality research. At Utah, Sutherland and Evans were highly sought after consultants by large companies but they were frustrated at the lack of graphics hardware available at the time so they started formulating a plan to start their own company.
A student by the name of Ed Catmull got started at the University of Utah in 1970 and signed up for Sutherland's computer graphics class. Catmull had just come from The Boeing Company and had been working on his degree in physics. Growing up on Disney, Catmull loved animation yet quickly discovered that he didn't have the talent for drawing. Now Catmull (along with many others) saw computers as the natural progression of animation and they wanted to be part of the revolution. The first animation that Catmull saw was his own. He created an animation of his hand opening and closing. It became one of his goals to produce a feature length motion picture using computer graphics. In the same class, Fred Parkes created an animation of his wife's face. Because of Evan's and Sutherland's presence, UU was gaining quite a reputation as the place to be for computer graphics research so Catmull went there to learn 3D animation.
As the UU computer graphics laboratory was attracting people from all over, John Warnock was one of those early pioneers; he would later found Adobe Systems and create a revolution in the publishing world with his PostScript page description language. Tom Stockham led the image processing group at UU which worked closely with the computer graphics lab. Jim Clark was also there; he would later found Silicon Graphics, Inc.
The first major advance in 3D computer graphics was created at UU by these early pioneers, the hidden-surface algorithm. In order to draw a representation of a 3D object on the screen, the computer must determine which surfaces are "behind" the object from the viewer's perspective, and thus should be "hidden" when the computer creates (or renders) the image.