Computer Graphics:
Ideas and People from America's Universities Fuel a Multi-Billion-Dollar Industry

Edward R. McCracken
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
Silicon Graphics, Inc.


Advances in computer graphics have transformed how we use computers. Computer graphics has given us the "mouse" input device, "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" document preparation systems, the computer-aided design system used to create the Boeing 777, the ability to visualize molecular dynamics and other scientific phenomena, the animation used in educational software and the advertising and entertainment industries, and virtual reality systems whose applications range from architectural prototyping to surgical training to entertainment. Today, every user of a computer benefits from computer graphics, even in applications such as word processors, spreadsheets, databases, and project planners. Because of user-friendly graphical user interfaces, pre-schoolers now routinely use computers, a revolution undreamt of even a few years ago.

While everyone is familiar with the mouse, multiple "windows" on computer screens, and stunningly realistic images of everything from animated logos in television advertisements to NASA animations of spacecraft flying past Saturn, few people realize that these innovations were spawned by federally sponsored university research. Without far-sighted support from agencies such as the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation, computer graphics and the multi-billion-dollar industry it makes possible would have developed much more slowly, and perhaps not predominantly in the U.S.

Historical Perspective

From its beginnings in the late 1960s, when a few DARPA- and NSF-sponsored research laboratories were working on relatively obscure graphics-related projects, the computer graphics community has grown to more than a hundred thousand software and hardware engineers and application developers. Early thrusts included graphics support software and rendering algorithms, graphics hardware architectures, graphical user interfaces, and hypermedia. The availability of graphical tools and systems has vastly influenced developments in computer-aided design and manufacturing, including the automotive and aerospace industries, molecular modeling and drug design, medical imaging, architectural design, and the entertainment industry. Today, many scientific and engineering disciplines that were once distinct from computer graphics are inextricably interwoven with it. In these disciplines, visualization is no longer an optional tool but a critical enabling technology.

By far the largest segments of today's computing industry are the personal computer and workstation markets. All major vendors (IBM, HP, Sun, DEC, SGI, Intel, Apple) participate in these segments, which total roughly $50 billion and $15 billion, respectively. And note that these dollar volumes only represent the hardware and system-software portions of these markets; system software is a small share of the total software market, which is dominated by applications, almost all of which make use of computer graphics.

Case Studies

The nation should look back with great pride on its research investments in all major areas of computer graphics. Six of the most significant of these areas are discussed below.

User Interfaces

The power of computers cannot be harnessed without a way to access and control that power; the interface between the user and the machine can determine the success or failure of both hardware and software. Apple's graphical desktop interface for the Macintosh computer (and the Microsoft Windows equivalent for PCs), and more recently the introduction of NCSA Mosaic, a graphical browser for the Internet (which was rapidly followed by Netscape Navigator, Microsoft Internet Explorer, etc.), are excellent examples of how applications of computer graphics research can create new markets and broaden old ones.

Both of these applications of graphics technology -- the desktop metaphor and the Mosaic browser -- had their origins in federally sponsored efforts. DARPA-sponsored research at the University of Utah was built on by Alan Kay in the 1970s at Xerox PARC to create the Smalltalk programming environment on the pioneering Alto bitmapped graphics workstation. This environment and PARC's Bravo document editor stimulated the development of the Apple Macintosh (1984) and bitmapped graphically based windowing systems and graphical user interfaces. NSF funding made possible the development of the Mosaic browser at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. Now, K-12 students throughout America use computers as information access devices -- they treat the Internet as a digital library and truly have information "at their fingertips." Mosaic and its derivatives have not only exponentially increased the number of Internet users, but is also spawning many new companies and enterprises and arousing intense corporate interest.

Computer Graphics Hardware

The hardware used in interactive computer graphics has its genesis in federally sponsored university research. The industry leader in rendering hardware is Silicon Graphics, Inc., founded by Jim Clark. Clark received his Ph.D. from the University of Utah where he and his advisor, Ivan Sutherland, pursued a federally funded program of research in 3D graphics hardware. Joining the faculty at Stanford, Clark received support from the DARPA VLSI Program for his Geometry Engine project, whose goal was to harness modern custom integrated-circuit technology to create cost-effective high-performance graphics systems. It was this Geometry Engine that formed the basis of SGI.

In 1968, Douglas Engelbart of Stanford Research Institute demonstrated his hypertext system, NLS, which was funded by DARPA. Among other things, this system included the first mouse -- now a standard fixture of computer systems everywhere.


Hypertext and hypermedia have their roots in Vannevar Bush's famous 1945 Atlantic Monthly article, "As We May Think." Bush described how documents might be interlinked in the fashion of human associative memory. These ideas inspired Doug Engelbart at SRI (funded by DARPA) and Andries van Dam of Brown University (funded by NSF) to develop the first hypertext systems in the 1960s. These systems were the forerunners of today's word-processing programs, including simple what-you-see-is-what-you-get capabilities that were further refined in the Xerox Bravo editor. The ideas and concepts were fundamental to such developments as Apple's popular Hypercard and NCSA Mosaic.


High-quality rendering has caught the public's eye and is having a vast impact on the entertainment and advertising industries. From Jurassic Park to simulator rides at Disney World and dancing soda cans in TV commercials, the world has been seduced by computer animation, special effects, and photorealistic imagery of virtual environments. How are these pictures created and where did the techniques for creating them come from?

DARPA and NSF deserve the lion's share of the credit. Before there was a market and a demand, they supported research activities at the University of Utah, North Carolina State, Ohio State, Caltech, and Cornell. For example, Gouraud shading, which allowed substantially more realistic images than the previous wire-frame images, was developed in 1970 by Henri Gouraud, a graduate student at the University of Utah. Coupled with work at the New York Institute of Technology, these results provided the foundation for the sophisticated software commonly available today. The industry still uses the basic algorithms developed at Utah in the 1970s for simple lighting calculations, both in software and increasingly in commodity hardware. More sophisticated rendering packages exploiting university-developed algorithms, such as Pixar's Renderman, are used by the film and animation industries, as well as in flight simulators and automotive design.

Graphics Software Systems

The combination of the above advances led to many commercial graphics software systems. Rather than develop new systems for each application area -- be it advertising, animation, molecular modeling, or scientific visualization -- it began to make make sense to utilize general-purpose systems. Offerings from Wavefront, AVS, SGI (Iris Explorer), and IBM (Data Explorer) were developed with strong influence by former Cornell and Brown students, educated in NSF-sponsored graphics laboratories. PostScript, the de facto standard in page-description languages for laser printers, was developed by Adobe, founded by Utah Ph.D. John Warnock. That graduates of federally sponsored university graphics research laboratories move on to lead industrial projects demonstrates the most effective means of technology transfer between universities and industry.

Virtual Reality

The popular idea of virtual reality saw its first implementation in Ivan Sutherland's ground-breaking work at Harvard in 1968. With funding from both commercial and government sources, including ONR, Bell Laboratories, the US Air Force and the CIA, Sutherland's work included the first head-mounted display as well as stereo and see-through displays, head tracking, and a hand-held 3D cursor. Such devices have now become widespread and are used in areas as diverse as video game systems, rapid prototyping for industrial design and architecture, and scientific visualization. Boeing's new 777 airplane was designed electronically throughout, including CAD/CAM 3D models, windtunnel simulation, and virtual-reality-based accessibility studies. This digital design enabled Boeing to avoid $100 million mockups, and the plane came together with far fewer changes and far greater accuracy than any previous design, enabling Boeing to maintain its competitive edge. Sutherland's early VR work also had influence on flight simulators, and his company, Evans and Sutherland, Inc., pioneered the visual simulation market, now a major business for many companies.

The Future

One could continue with many more examples, but the message is clear: federal sponsorship of university research in computer graphics stimulated a major segment of the computing industry, allowing the United States to establish and maintain a competitive edge.

We now are facing the next hurdle. As we move into the next century with ubiquitous computing, parallel processing, almost infinite bandwidth, a vastly broader community of users, telepresence, and collaborative computing, things will change drastically. We need to investigate and develop new parallel architectures, new pixel-based display architectures, better and faster rendering algorithms, easier-to-use 3D user interfaces, and physically based models and simulations. This research depends not only on computer science issues but also on physics, optics, thermodynamics, digital sampling theory, perception, human factors, graphical design, and other areas too numerous to list. In addition, the results are intertwined with application needs in manufacturing, medical imaging, molecular modeling, scientific visualization, pilot training, aircraft and automotive design, and education.

America's leadership in computer graphics, and in information technology as a whole, is the result of a remarkable long-term partnership among government, industry, and academia, in which federally sponsored university research plays a critical role. Now, more than ever, we must invest to maintain this leadership.

The Author

Edward R. McCracken is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Silicon Graphics, Inc., the leading manufacturer of high-performance visual computing systems. The company delivers interactive three-dimensional graphics, digital media, and multiprocessing supercomputing technologies to technical, scientific, and creative professionals, and is actively involved in bringing these same technologies to the home market through its relationships with AT&T, Nintendo, NTT, and Time Warner. The company's products have been used to create special effects in a number of recent movies, including Jurassic Park and Forrest Gump. Its subsidiary MIPS Technologies, Inc., designs and licenses RISC processor technology for the computer systems and consumer electronics markets. Its subsidiary Cray Research is focused on supercomputing technologies.

SGI has offices worldwide and headquarters in Mountain View, California. In the fiscal year ending in June 1996, SGI reported net revenues of $2.9 billion. The 15-year-old company employs 7,800 people in the United States, 10,500 worldwide.

McCracken has an MBA from Stanford University and a BSEE from Iowa State University. He serves on the Board of Directors of Tularik, Inc., a privately held biotechnology company. He also serves as co-chairman of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, Inc., and co-chairman of the United States Advisory Council on the National Information Infrastructure.

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Copyright 1995, 1996, 1997 by Edward R. McCracken and the Computing Research Association. Contributions to this document by Forest Baskett, Henry Fuchs, Donald P. Greenberg, and Andries van Dam are appreciated.