INTERVIEWS

Alan NortonAlan Norton is the SIGGRAPH 2003 Web Graphics Chair, and a research professor at the Colorado School of Mines.

What first drew you to computer graphics? I started my career in mathematics, but I was frustrated by the fact that math is so abstract and it’s hard to communicate the beauty of mathematics. I interrupted my math studies in 1979 with a summer position at Evans and Sutherland Computer Co. (with the help of my friend Alyn Rockwood) and I became very excited to learn that, with computer graphics, mathematics (and especially geometry) can be used to visualize things that people can readily understand and appreciate.
Do you have any favorite computer graphics mentors?

Some of my favorites include Alyn Rockwood, Benoit Mandelbrot, and Jim Kajiya. These people share a willingness to discard old principles and enjoy constructing radically new ways of using mathematics and computers.

What was the first time you contributed to SIGGRAPH?

In 1982 I had two papers accepted, one based on the work at E&S, the other on quaternion fractals, based on my work with Mandelbrot.

What year/city was your first SIGGRAPH? Which was most intense? Why?

The first was Dallas 1981. Most intense: Boston 1989, when I got a lot of attention for the ET animation, “Tipsy Turvy”. My team (from IBM Research) used physically-based modeling to “break” the Utah teapot.

What contributions to SIGGRAPH are you most proud of? Breaking the teapot (1989) and quaternion fractals (1982). With the teapot animation, I was particularly proud of the fact that I was able to put together a successful animation project at IBM Research. At that time, that company did not usually accept computer animation as a serious research topic, it was perceived as something akin to cartoons. On the other hand that work may have led to the end of my IBM Research career, since computer animation didn’t generate a lot of revenue for the company in its financial troubles of the early 1990s. I also got a lot of attention and enjoyment for doing quaternion fractals (they nicely combined my math and computer graphics interests) but, in spite of their visual appeal, I was never able to figure out a way to use them in any useful way.
What's your favorite thing at this year or last year's SIGGRAPH? E-Tech and Web Graphics. Both of these programs are rapidly breaking new ground in ways that people can immediately (and interactively) appreciate. The more traditional venues at Siggraph have more to do with seeing and understanding, without enabling direct interaction by the public.
What near/intermediate developments in CG do you look forward to?

1. Widespread use of flexible, interactive animated graphics-based user interfaces. Flash is showing us that user interaction does not need to be confined to the formal clicking of static buttons or filling in forms. I expect that the full power of 3D graphics and animation will soon be widely available in user interfaces (especially on the Web). We have become accustomed to the unnatural and limiting paradigms of dragging and clicking on icons in windows.

2. Wide adoption of volume-based modeling and rendering. Most graphics is still being done with lines and surfaces (mostly triangles) because of the limitations of 1980’s computers. In those days people had to wait minutes or hours to render an image from a volume. Now that everybody’s computer can hold a 256MB graphics card, we are starting to see widespread use of volume representations of data. Volumes are better than polygons because they can more accurately represent the 3d nature of real-world scenes.

Now in its second year, we see the addition of the Web Expo to the Web Graphics program. What do you foresee the program expanding to include in future years?

As you probably know, Simon Allardice is going to be chair again next year, and he has some excellent plans. You should talk to him for details, but I know he intends to expand the program in several ways, both in attracting more content and in offering more diversity for attendees. The Web Graphics area is rapidly evolving, because it's making interactive computer graphics content available to wider audiences than ever before. It's accompanied by a surge of new technologies, designs and commercial opportunities. It's not so important for us to expand the size of the program as it is to evolve the program to match the needs and interests of the growing Web Graphics community, and Simon is actively working to this end.
Would you say there is a prominent theme or direction that this year’s Web Graphics submissions are calling us to explore (such as web-enabled devices, design, online communities, virtual spaces, etc.)? Probably the most prominent theme in the Web Graphics program is the use of Flash and related Macromedia tools as the medium for designing interactive web sites. Most of the content in the Expo uses Flash, and many of the presentations discuss ways of extending Flash in Web designs and applications. Applications are another prominent theme. In this year's program you will see applications in science and technology, recreation, community, development, education and other areas. The topics you mention above continue to be actively discussed, but I would say it is the diversity of new applications rather than any specific technology that is emphasized in this years' submissions.
In the past, animators and web developers constituted two discrete areas of web graphics. In 2002, Simon Allardice, last year’s Web Graphics Chair, mentioned that that was all beginning to change. How far in that direction would you say we have reached?

We've already come a long way in that direction, and this year's program shows it. The tools are becoming more usable and the animators are becoming more sophisticated. The technology of Rich Internet Applications (RIA's) enables Web
animators to provide more interactive content. (There is a session on RIAs Wednesday at 10:30) Note the artistic/technical collaboration of Branden Hall and Josh Davis, who are both presenting this year. Sandro Corsaro ("Flash hits the big time") is showing how flash is becoming useful in feature film and TV production. The gaming session, Thurs at 3:45, shows another way in which animation merges with web technology. There's a presentation Wednesday morning in the Advanced 3D session showing how motion capture data can be integrated into animated web content.

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Last updated 8/11/03.

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