Vol.33 No.4 November 1999

Artist Discoveries and Graphical Histories

Thomas G.West

November 99 Columns
Visfiles Real-Time Interactive Graphics

Images and Reversals
Previous Images and Reversals Previous Images and Reversals
"In the eighth century, a sect arose from within the ranks of its highly literate clergy that so despised images that its members declared an all-out war against statues and paintings. . . . At first, they sought out only religious images to smash. Church mosaics, painted icons, and stained-glass artistry fell to their savage assaults. Later their targets also included painters, sculptors and craftsmen. They even murdered those whose crime it was to love art. Monks who resisted were blinded and had their tongues torn out. The iconoclasts beheaded the Patriarch of the Eastern Church in 767 for refusing to support their cause.
"The iconoclast movement never spread to illiterate Western Europe; its madness consumed only the segment of Christendom that boasted the highest literacy rate. Artists fled for their lives from Byzantium, heading for the western court of Charlemagne whose largely illiterate courtiers welcomed them with open arms" (pp. 275-276) [1].

Brobdingnagian Visions

"The idea was to make something that was so large that it could not be readily seen as a whole and force the viewer to scan the image in a Brobdingnagian way, as if they were Gulliverís Lilliputians crawling over the surface of the face, falling into a nostril and tripping over a mustache hair."

With this passage, artist Chuck Close explained why he painted his portraits with large blocks of color on enormous canvases. He did not suggest, however, that at the same time he was also discovering aspects of perception that scientific researchers were only to become aware of much later.

SIGGRAPH members have long been concerned with the interrelationships of art, technology and science. They are aware, more than others, that new paths are often opened by the artists ó but that frequently (at least since the Renaissance) the artists are not credited with their accomplishments. A welcome exception to this pattern is showcased in the cover article of a recent issue of Science magazine. In "Close Encounters - An Artist Shows that Size Affects Shape," Close is credited with "discovering [the] size-dependent breakdown of our ability to extract shape from shading."

Researcher Denis G. Pelli, from New York Universityís Center for Neural Science, observes that "we easily recognize objects of all shapes and sizes, yet no one knows how we do it." It would appear obvious that we recognize shapes regardless of size, he notes. If this were not true, "we would recognize our friend or the letter Ďaí differently at each size or viewing distance." However, he notes that the portraits by Close show "vividly" that this is not so.

Rather, when one looks at the portraits or "heads" (as Close calls them) done in the years 1987 to 1997 (in their actual size), "one can move forward and back, again and again, and the face, solid from afar, always collapses into flat marks when seen from near." Pelli explains that it is this pattern of change with distance that indicates "size affects the perception of shape, disproving the popular assumption that shape perception is size-dependent." According to Pelli, careful measurement of observers while viewing these "heads" have shown that "the effect is visual (perception) not optical (physics)."

Pelli notes that we might erroneously view Close as merely a "naÔve artist, obsessed by grids, who innocently produced the coarsely gridded paintings." However, Pelli notes that the artist knew exactly what he was doing. Indeed Pelli asserts that Close was "more thorough than his scientific colleagues." In his experiments from 1973 to 1997, Close increased his grid size in a strikingly regular fashion (15 percent per year). Also, he made sure that all exhibitions of his work satisfied the necessary observational requirements; he cancelled a "retrospective that could not provide long viewing distances." Accordingly, Pelli finally asserts: "So credit Chuck Close with discovering this size-dependent breakdown of our ability to extract shape from shading...."

In this case, the artist has led the way and gotten the credit too, but it probably will not be the last time. We can imagine that in the near future, there will be many opportunities for SIGGRAPH members to lead the way in new directions ó as the growing practical crafts of graphics and visualization illuminate new corners of the human brain.

Catching Their Attention

Dealing with groups with limited vision is not, of course, limited to science and art. At the beginning of the SIGGRAPH 99 conference last August, many of us had the opportunity to see the first theater showing of The Story of Computer Graphics. We were delighted with the production and grateful to the many contributors. It was great to see flashes of the early classics and to hear pioneers talk about developing the basics ó in obscurity and with growing excitement ó during the time when no one took digital technologies and techniques seriously. Ed Catmull was delightful as he said, with a twinkle in his eye, that these days of doubt are now past and digital artists had finally "caught the attention" of traditional film makers.

Many were eager to get copies of the documentary to show to students and lay audiences - to tell the story that is still widely not understood. However, many of us were concerned with the weight given different aspects of the history. Some complained of the too heavy emphasis on Cold War talk and devices at the beginning of the film. Others thought there could have been more emphasis on contributions from groups outside the U.S.

Personally, I was pleased with the time given to observations by the founders of Pixar and Industrial Light and Magic. However, I would have liked to see much more from people like Donna Cox and Dan Sandin talking about scientific and information visualization. The general public is now accustomed to digital special effects in feature films. However, they still know almost nothing of the visualization technologies that may be expected to transform many parts of work over the next few years and decades.

Let There Be Light

The other major theater event at this yearís SIGGRAPH was, of course, the Electronic Theater. The program had a beautiful start with Fiat Lux from Berkeley (nicely covered by Paul Debevec in the August 1999 issue of Computer Graphics). But on the whole, the program seemed unusually disappointing. There was, I felt, a disproportionate share of time given to digital special effects samples from feature films, some of them relatively old. Also, many of the pieces exhibited a preoccupation with violence unseen in recent memory.

Personally, I am mainly interested in examples of new innovations which convey, to a non-professional audience, the unfolding power of computer graphics. In previous years we have seen many pieces that have since become enduring classics: the flocking behavior in Stanley and Stella, the computed thunderstorm from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, the pulsar with planets from Cornellís Theory Center, the sophisticated whimsy of Luxo Jr. or Tin Toy, the clever and amusing inversion of the sphere from the Geometry Center, Jim Blinnís brilliant Story of Pi, the first six minutes in the creation of the universe prepared for IMAX, the American Indian archeological site reconstructions for 500 Nations from Santa Barbara Studios, the moving drawings of Leonardoís Deluge from Karl Sims, Mark Whitney and others.

Each year, more or less, we have been treated to another unfolding in an ever more self-assured repertoire of wonderful things. New digital artists finding more and better ways of amusing us, delighting us ó or of imitating nature, once again, as in the Renaissance ó but with greater depth and breadth than ever before, as they imitate not only appearance and form but also accurate physical motion, patterns of growth and believable behavior.

This year, however, I found it more difficult to identify such examples. With a few exceptions, throughout there seemed to be mainly a harder edge and a darker view. Of course, there were delightful pieces such Tightrope, All is Full of Love, Spatial Frames and Fishing. Even the breaking of bricks showed convincing simulations with a bit of humor.

However, the only piece I saw as a major innovation of the kind I am interested in was the spectacularly convincing computer graphic face in The Jester by Pacific Title/Mirage Studio. It is unclear to me whether the most important technical device is mainly a highly detailed form of motion capture, but I found the final results quite astonishing, making all previous such experiments appear wooden, waxy, puppet-like. I hope that next year the submissions and the screening process will yield more light once again, yielding a long list of further innovations destined to be future classics as well.

A Shower of Products

During the coming year, the relationship of art to technology and science may soon take on vastly new dimensions in the world at large if the editors of a new collection of readings are correct. "The foundational period of information visualization is now ending . . . " and very shortly "there will be a shower of products using its techniques." This is the assertion of Stuart Card, Jock Mackinlay and Ben Shneiderman in their new book of articles on visualization subtitled Using Vision to Think.

They argue that "the absorption of . . . advanced interactive graphics capabilities into the standard PC computer platform at the end of the 1990s . . .." is now virtually complete. So, they believe that "the path is now clear for information visualization to be used in mass-market products . . .." And as this 15-year foundational period draws to a close, "in the next period, information visualization will pass out of the realm of an exotic research specialty and into the mainstream of user interface and application design."

If they are correct, the long-predicted broad effects of these new visualization technologies and techniques may now, finally, be at hand. And perhaps it is not only sales talk (or desperation) that prompts Apple Computer to promote its new G4 computer as "the first supercomputer on a chip." Picturing a Cray and claiming sustained performance of over one gigaflop or more, they explain in a Fortune magazine ad to their audience of senior corporate leaders that "Chances are youíve never heard of a gigaflop before. But very soon you wonít be able to live without at least one on your desktop."

Many of us have been anticipating these trends for some years. We cannot be sure that the broad awareness of these technologies ó and the new forms of visual literacy that go with them ó will occur rapidly. It surely will not happen quite as rapidly as the sudden media awareness of the Internet and the World Wide Web. However, one wonders whether it might break upon an unsuspecting world with similar speed sometime in the next 12 months.

Of course, much will depend upon the speed with which mainstream computer users and software designers develop applications of immediate usefulness to a large audience. Applications like Adobeís PhotoShop did suddenly increase the processing demands far beyond those required for word processing and spreadsheets. Much will depend upon how quickly a clear need is seen for sophisticated information visualization applications. But it is worth noting that the corporate culture in many places is still remarkably deficient in awareness of the power and potential of visualization tools and visual proficiencies.

As Alvy Ray Smith noted in the May 1999 issue of Computer Graphics, for example, "Microsoft...frankly, just does not get it about artists. The technically creative people here are awesome and Microsoft is the best-run company Iíve ever seen, but the people here donít respect artists (in that deep way I just described at Pixar). They seem to believe the really good talents in the world are technical and if you canít cut that then you do other things, like art. In other words, the culture here doesnít (not yet anyway) welcome in Ďthe other side.í Iím trying to change this, but it isnít so yet."

Accordingly, much may depend upon how rapidly companies like Microsoft come to really understand the potential of these technologies and techniques ó and the potential of the artists and visual thinkers who have been in the forefront of their use. Perhaps smaller companies will need to take the lead, allowing the artists and visual thinkers to show the world what they have discovered and what can be done.

Thomas G. West is author of In the Mindís Eye. He is currently helping to develop a research agenda concerning visual thinking and visualization technologies for the U.S. National Library of Medicine and other organizations.

Thomas G.West

Tel: +1-301-654-5828
Fax: +1-301-654-0987

The copyright of articles and images printed remains with the author unless otherwise indicated.