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Distinguished Lecture

Computer Graphics: Past, Present and Future

Jim BlinnMicrosoft, Computer Graphics Research

Since I started my career in Computer Graphics 35 years ago at U of M I cannot resist the opportunity to begin my talk by reminiscing about what was going on in the field back then, and what in particular was going on at Michigan. Moving on to the present I want to talk about two active research interests: pixel processing and geometric computation.

The pixel is the basic element of computation for computer imaging. The most popular pixel format is to devote 8-bits for each of the red, green and blue components of a color. Image compositing operations include an extra "transparency" channel usually called alpha. When looked at more deeply, however, it turns out that there are subtle differences between in the details of these encodings for different applications. When we need to combine images from various sources such as computer generated images, digital video and digital cameras, these differences become more and more of a nuisance. In this part of the talk I will describe these differences and discuss some higher resolution formats that will help bring these various worlds together.

3D graphics depends on geometric computations to figure out what is visible at each pixel of a display. Current 3D hardware uses flat triangles as its basic elements. In the future we would like to render higher order curved surfaces. In order to do this, we will need to understand how to manipulate these constructs algebraically. In this part of the talk I will describe some new mathematical notation tricks that make it easier to solve such problems as intersections and tangency for higher order curves and surfaces.

Finally, I will speculate a bit about the future of computer graphics: the problems and opportunities that will spark our interest in the next few years.
Jim Blinn had a 35-year long career in Computer Graphics starting in 1968 while an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. In 1974 he became a graduate student at the University of Utah where he did research in realistic rendering and received a Ph. D in 1977. The results of this research have become standard techniques in today's computer animation systems. They include realistic specular lighting models, bump mapping and environment/reflection mapping. In 1977 he moved to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where he produced computer graphics animations for various space missions to Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus. These animations were shown on many news broadcasts as part of the press coverage of the missions and were the first exposure to computer animation for many people in the industry today. Also at JPL he produced animation for Carl Sagan's PBS series COSMOS and for the Annenberg/CPB funded project "the Mechanical Universe" , a 52 part telecourse to teach college level physics. During these productions he developed several other standard computer graphics techniques including work in cloud simulation and a modeling technique variously called blobbies or metaballs. In 1987 he began a regular column in the IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications journal where he describes mathematical techniques used in computer graphics. He has just published his third volume of collected articles from this series. From 1989 to 1995 he worked at Caltech producing animations to teach High School level mathematics. In 1995 he joined Microsoft Research as a Graphics Fellow. He is a MacArthur Fellow, has an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Otis Parsons School of Design and is currently the only person to receive both the Siggraph Achievement Award (1983) and the Stephen Coons Award (1999).

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