INTERVIEWS

Andy van Dam Andries van Dam is a Professor of Computer Science at Brown University, and also serves as Brown's Vice President for Research. Andy was awarded the ACM SIGGRAPH Steven A. Coons Award in 1991, to honor his lifetime of contributions to the field of interactive computer graphics. He has been teaching computer graphics to undergraduates at Brown University continuously since 1966.

What first drew you to computer graphics?

Ivan Sutherland's "Sketchpad" caught Andy's attention in 1963, inspiring him to pursue graphics research. At the time, he was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania working on character recognition and information retrieval, but still searching for a Ph.D. dissertation topic. Sutherland's film fascinated him, both because of its use of images and because of its interactivity. At the time, computing was typically done in batch processing using stacks of cards as input, so the concept of "Man-Machine Interaction" was really revolutionary, and Andy recalls wondering whether people would ever really use computers interactively, as Sutherland's project had demonstrated was possible. However, Andy's newfound desire to study computer graphics was difficult -- at the time, the University of Pennsylvania didn't even own a display! He decided to do his thesis on exploring how to store and retrieve images that had been created interactively; however, due to Penn's lack of graphics hardware, he had to simulate his output on a line printer. "The system worked just long enough to demo it," Andy fondly recalls.


When he became a faculty member at Brown University in 1965, Andy had two goals. First, he wanted to start a Computer Science department. In particular, he wanted a CS department that would teach undergraduates in addition to graduate students, something which did not yet exist. Secondly, he wanted to start a graphics lab with a real tube. Through Brown's connections to IBM Research, he was able to get an IBM2250, which was a CRT display with a light pen. (It was connected to an IBM 360-50 mainframe with a whopping 512K of memory!)

Do you have any computer graphics mentors? Ivan Sutherland's work was an early influence for Andy. Because Andy was one of the first people doing graphics research, though, he didn't have many people who could mentor him in this respect. He learned everything about graphics on his own, through reading papers and trying things on his own, and, once he had students of his own, he learned a great deal from his students, as well.
What was the first time you contributed to SIGGRAPH? Andy's first contribution to the SIGGRAPH conference was to start SICGRAPH -- the ACM's Special Interest Committee on Graphics. This group eventually evolved into the ACM's graphics SIG, which puts on the annual eponymous conference. When Andy first started out as a professor at Brown, he got to know Sam Matsa, who worked at IBM's New York research center. Sam and Andy decided to give a professional development seminar about the new field of computer graphics, and toured around the country giving lectures about graphics. The lectures were well-attended, so Andy and Sam petitioned the ACM to start SICGRAPH. At first, the ACM felt that graphics was too specialized a field to have enough interested researchers to merit starting a special interest committee, so Andy had to find 30 people to sign a petition stating that they would be willing to participate in such a group. At the time, finding 30 graphics researchers, users, and/or developers was quite challenging, but he managed it!
What do you like best about SIGGRAPH? "Seeing my friends." Andy notes that the annual Brown reunion dinner is one of his favorite parts of the SIGGRAPH conference, as it offers him the chance to catch up with his former students who now work in the graphics industry. He enjoys seeing the gadgetry and getting a sense of how the field is progressing, but most of all he thinks of the conference as an opportunity to get together with people he cherishes.
What developments in computer graphics do you anticipate?

While he doesn't anticipate any huge revolutions in near-term graphics research, Andy does expect that current cutting-edge graphics research will continue to evolve at a rapid pace. He notes that it is impressive how quickly graphics hardware and algorithms have advanced since the field's birth only a few decades ago, and expects this trend to keep going. He also notes the exciting interdisciplinary nature of the field -- for instance, much graphics research draws on techniques from other fields such as mathematics, physics, computer vision, artificial intelligence, or biology. Says Andy, "Computer Graphics is voracious in its appetite for latching onto things in other fields."

Andy also hopes to see graphics applied to important social problems, such as education or medical applications. Although some efforts in these areas currently exist, the majority of the focus seems to be on entertainment applications such as movies and video games. Andy hopes in the future to see the talented individuals who are revolutionizing graphics research focus on how their research can be used for greater benefit. "I am both proud of what my field for what it has accomplished, and saddened by how little societal impact it has had," he says. User interfaces are one exception, he notes -- GUIs (graphical user interfaces) have been one of the major coups of the field, by making computing accessible to the average user. In the 1970s, Andy never would have imagined that one day computers would be simple enough for children to use, but GUIs, particularly the WIMP (windows, icons, menus, and pointing) interface, have made that possible.

What contribution to graphics are you most proud of? Andy prides himself on "all my former students who are leaders in the field." During the SIGGRAPH 2004 awards ceremony, Zoran Popovic, winner of the Significant New Researcher Award, noted Andy's influence on his own career, and asked others in the audience who had begun their graphics journey under Andy's wing to raise their hands -- dozens of raised arms were a testament to Andy's mentoring. Andy's two computer graphics textbooks ("Fundamentals of Computer Graphics," co-authored with J.D. Foley, and "Computer Graphics: Principles and Practice," co-authored with J.D. Foley, S.K. Feiner, and J.F. Hughes) have been used to educate hundreds of thousands of computer science students and practitioners.

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