Vol.34 No.1 February 2000

Looking Back…to What’s Ahead

Carl Machover - Photo credit: Louis Fabian Bachrach
Carl Machover
Machover Associates Corp.

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The Pioneers column this issue looks ahead - what impact will our industry have on the world 20 years from now? But here’s the catch - this article was written 20 years ago for the CG 80 Conference in August of 1980. In rereading the material, frankly, I think we did pretty well.

We certainly were overly optimistic about the growth of 2000 line and 4000 line systems. Probably weren’t aggressive enough about the enormous price reductions. Our faith in video disks was not rewarded. We were a bit too optimistic about automatic digitizing. With the availability of low-cost PCs and software, the trends toward turnkey systems abated and folks were much more likely to put together their own systems. We talked about home information utility and if I were very aggressive I could argue I anticipated the Internet but that’s even a stretch for me.

Readers - I invite you to share with me and other Computer Graphics readers your own great "calls" and the ones you missed. Send them to me at

From a presentation by Carl Machover at CG 80, August 13-15, 1980 in Brighton, England.

Over a decade ago I was privileged to present a paper entitled "Computer Graphics in the United States" at the first Brunel University Online Computer Graphics Uxbridge, England.

I said then that, "The use of graphic terminals in both research and profit-making environments is growing rapidly," and...indeed it still is.

Then it was estimated that there were about 500 to 1,000 graphic consoles, predominantly stroke refresh units, installed or on order and estimated that there would be a billion dollars worth of terminals bought in 1973. That estimate was a bit premature! However, by 1976, it was generally agreed that the total computer graphics market was about a billion dollars!

Over the past decade, graphics technology was dominated by the storage tube. As 1980 begins, computer graphics has devices in place, with a users community of perhaps 250,000 and with some 40,000 people employed. By mid-decade, computer graphics will have grown to a $7.3 billion a year industry with more than 1,000,000 users and 150,000 employees.

What hardware, software and system trends can one expect to encounter over the next decade?

There seems little question that color is becoming an increasingly important part of a wide range of applications. Stimulated by business graphics and simulation, color is also important to a number of other graphics applications including computer-aided design and imaging. The problem of low-cost cathode ray tube displays is well on the way to solution now. In 1980 it is possible to buy acceptable color graphics display systems for less than $2,000...less than the cost of the least expensive storage tube, for example.

The importance of color in graphics will also accelerate the development of color hardcopy devices. Going into the ‘80s, impact printers, pen plotters, ink jet plotters, film and laser plotters, all provide technologies for relatively fast, relatively low-cost copy color hardcopy. As the decade proceeds, that trend can be expected to accelerate with additional products entering, based on the technologies listed above, and new products based on new technologies...such as electrostatics, perhaps...gaining a major foothold on the market.

Another issue at question during the next decade is the future of the cathode ray tube. Many specialists predict the demise of the cathode ray tube...a 100-year-old device that requires analog drives which are incompatible with modern digital circuitry. Over the next decade, interest will continue in various flat panel displays. Various matrix technologies are advancing with plasma and liquid crystal, combined with thin film techniques, looking the most promising.

Products like Vuepoint, a compact flat panel display for executive desks, developed by General Digital Corp., may represent the future direction for such products. Although the General Digital unit is built around a plasma panel, the concept might be implemented with other technology. For example, Litton has had a flat panel LED handheld system on the market for several years. Panelvision has demonstrated prototype flat panel CRT displays. Several of these include touch input techniques.

Also, it seems quite probable that within the next year or so, handheld calculators with graphic capability will begin to make their appearance. There are some reports that Casio already has a liquid crystal version of a graphic calculator. Certainly right now flat panel displays are very expensive...within the $2,000 - $3,000 range. But considering what’s happened with calculator-like technology, it seems a reasonable prediction that the cost of small flat panel displays can be expected to plummet dramatically. Voice input can be expected to become more common in computer graphics systems.

Certainly, the cathode ray tube will be under fire for the next decade. However, it is unlikely that it will be displaced as a major display device for computer graphics. It is still a vigorous, cost-effective technology.

Because of continuing reductions in logic and memory costs, raster displays which benefit from these two technologies will be the dominant display technology in the 1980s...basically replacing the earlier dominance of the storage tube. Systems will continue to decline in cost. By the end of the decade, low resolution (500 lines) color systems should cost about what a standard television set costs today. There will be continuing advancements in high resolution systems as well. One thousand line systems are fairly common now. By the middle of the decade, 2000 line systems will be common and near the end of the decade, the technology should begin to push into 4000 line systems.

During the 1980s the price/performance of raster systems should continue to improve. High performance (high resolution and fast response) systems are costly now - but at least one company (Advanced Technology Systems Division of the Austin Co.) has developed a system called COMPUTROL which provides reasonable resolution, shaded image hardware, with prices comparable with high quality stroke writing refresh displays. Some of the principals in the COMPUTROL development have reported that they believe that they can produce similar kinds of hardware for $5,000 in the not too distant future. If that’s possible, it will have a significant impact on the market for stroke writing refresh displays.

The video disk will become an important part of computer graphics in the ‘80s. The Architecture Machine Lab at MIT has experimented with using video disks as a random access store for the equivalent of more than 50,000 35mm slides. A read-write capability will develop and an interactive system built around a read/write video disk can be expected to emerge.

The question of 3D is a recurring one in computer graphics. Genisco has announced acquisition of the Space Graph display, a Bolt, Beranik and Newman system, to produce a 3D display based on the vibrating mirror membrane concept. Holography is also looked at from time-to-time as a potential source for computer graphics 3D imagery. However, in my view the realization of this technology has been considerably less than the promise. There have been some 3D systems built for specialized military applications. Also, while holography can provide spectacularly realistic images, the market for these has not developed beyond very specialized art and advertising purposes.

Perhaps the real issue is the need for three-dimensional images in computer graphics. As applications develop in which the user wants lifelike graphic images, 3D becomes very important. But where accurate assessments need to be made, the user can probably draw better conclusions from orthographic two-dimensional representations. In spite of the spectacular imagery that’s possible, then, holography and other 3D techniques probably won’t become a major factor in computer graphics over the next decade.

There is a growing interest in three-dimensional representations for computer-aided design. These appear to be satisfied by conventional raster shaded image technique. Of course, if some kind of low cost 2D/3D full color representation can be developed, it’s entirely possible that the CAD 3D requirements might provide a driving force for the exploitation of that technology.

The future of hardcopy graphics output continues to be questioned. It’s exciting to talk about the paperless office and engineering company. And, if these develop to any large extent, the outlook for manufacturers of hardcopy devices would certainly be bleak. However, the amount of hardcopy probably will continue to grow and not diminish. In fact as technology advances and it becomes easier to get hardcopy output from a growing number of CRT terminals, the issue will primarily be how to keep from drowning in paper...and this is essentially a management, not a technology, issue.

Interest in automatic digitizing for input devices will continue. Today’s devices are quite expensive and have essentially no pattern recognition capability. By the end of the decade, the interest should develop and artificial intelligence should be able to provide efficient true pattern recognition.

A major software trend as graphics moves into more applications in the ‘80s will be to make software easier to use so that the needs of the non-technical, non-programmer user can be satisfied. CAD/CAM systems essentially do that at this point. Powerful software is resident in the system, but the user interacts at a menu level, rather than at a programming level. English language-like plotting programs, such as EZ-GRAF and TELL-A-GRAF, set directions for the future. Software will change in form as well, to the point where applications and system software will be furnished as plug-in firmware semi-conductor modules. The beginnings of this technique can be seen now in products offered by Hewlett Packard, Superset and Zytron.

The use of true geometric modeling will become more common in computer-aided design by the middle of the decade and will probably dominate computer-aided design systems by 1990.

In CAD and other graphic systems, there is a continuing movement toward turnkey systems as well-defined applications develop. Specially designed terminals will emerge containing all the application software, either as conventional software, or as firmware. Also, there will be custom designed operator input elements designed specifically to these solutions. Specially designed systems for management information and computer-aided education, for example, are two that should grow.

The use of computer graphics for business and industrial art is another growing application. It is estimated that $1 billion worth of 35mm presentation slides are made now. That number should increase to about $5 billion at the end of the decade.

The much discussed "home information utility" could significantly affect computer graphics in the 1980s. The utility would combine closed circuit TV, wired cities and telephone systems to bring information into the homes. Many information products might come from the computer graphics industry to tie into such systems now being offered, such as the Prestel View Data. The techniques involved in the home time-sharing services is based on the use of the home television set, an intelligent telephone interface box, home computer center, interactive cable and various means of electronic distribution. If these systems become successful, they will have a major impact on computer graphics.

They, however, face implementation problems that are primarily entrepreneurial rather than technical. There have been a number of techniques for similar applications since the mid-1950s. Pay TV was an active issue of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. The Mitre Corp. was involved in the concept of a wired city. Reston, Virginia was a site for the program. While the technology was cost-effective, the problem was supplying service and information that consumers were willing to pay for. That problem still exists. The new technology being discussed is certainly adequate, but the service cannot become economically viable unless one has the marketing skill to create sufficient demand. If so, the home utility concept could become a reality by the end of the decade...a reality which could well dominate the computer graphics industry.

Finally, personal computers will greatly influence computer graphics. New systems being offered now all tend to feature graphics and data plotting capability. The systems are rapidly being interfaced to a variety of commercial data bases. But more important, a generation of youngsters is beginning to use the computer and graphics associated with it as a natural extension of their education. A study conducted by Jack Niles under a grant from the National Science Foundation, contains some fascinating conclusions. It argues that the personal computer will have a greater effect on current lifestyle than television did 25 years ago, because the personal computer talks back. In a culture already accustomed to watching TV, the ability to get answers to specific questions will have a substantial effect on the way people think.

Our concerns now about the business community not being especially keyed toward graphics probably will be less significant as the next generation of graphics managers who were weaned on personal computers move into the field.

SIGGRAPH Loses Pioneers in 1999

Phil Mittelman died on December 23, 1999. Phil, 74, was founder of Mathematical Applications Group, Inc. (MAGI) and a pioneer in solid modeling (Synthevision), computer graphics commercials and animation. His company was one of the creators of TRON and also pioneered the offering of remote computer graphics slidemaking services. Mittelman was featured in the recently released ACM SIGGRAPH documentary, The Story of Computer Graphics.

Other contributors to our field who passed away recently include Pierre Bézier, Dave Evans, Jack Rabinow and John Landsdown. ACM SIGGRAPH extends their deepest sympathies to the families of these great men.

Carl Machover is President of Machover Associates Corporation, a consultancy providing services to computer graphics users, suppliers and investors. He has been interested and involved in the field of CG for many years, written numerous articles and conducted a number of seminars. Machover is Editor of the CAD/CAM Handbook (McGraw Hill, 1996) and serves on the editorial board of several publications.

Carl Machover
Machover Associates
152A Longview Avenue
White Plains, NY 10605

Tel: +1-914-949-3777
Fax: +1-914-949-3851

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