Vol.34 No.1 February 2000

Is Visualization No Longer a New New Thing?

Thomas G.West
Visualization Research Institute, Inc.

February 00 Columns
Visfiles Real-Time Interactive Graphics

Images and Reversals
Previous Images and Reversals Next Images and Reversals

The World According to Jim Clark

For most SIGGRAPH members, the acceptance of visualization seems really old hat. We’ve become accustomed to the fact that visualization and computer graphics can be used for nearly everything - from feature films to product design to physical science to understanding stock market trends. The important barriers to acceptance - high power, speed and cost - have largely fallen away of late, and it seems hard to remember a time when the idea of visualization being a useful and viable field was not obvious.

However, it is useful to be reminded - as in The New New Thing, Michael Lewis’ recent book about Jim Clark [1] - that this was not always the case.

"‘Computer graphics is as fundamental to computers as vision is to humans,’ Clark wrote back in his teaching days. That thought, strange at the time, soon became commonplace."

Lewis notes that "a lot of people who should have seen the importance of Clark’s Geometry Engine thought it was a useless toy. Half the venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road who made their money, in theory at least, financing the future had failed to see its potential. So had the enormous gray corporations of the late 1970s. Clark had offered to license his invention to IBM, Apollo, Hewlett-Packard, and DEC. All turned him down."

This was about 20 years ago. The money people did not see it. The corporate people did not see it. Neither did the technical people.

"Even people whose work would be transformed by his invention," explains Lewis, "were slow to grasp its importance. . . . An engineer from Lockheed visited Silicon Graphics (SGI) soon after the company was founded. The SGI engineers offered him a demonstration: an automobile depicted and manipulated in three-dimensional space. . . . ‘That might be good for designing cars,’ said the man from Lockheed, ‘but I design airplanes. . . .’ He did not understand that Clark’s new company had made it possible to design everything inside a computer. And every new Lockheed airplane from now until eternity would be created by Silicon Graphics’ technology."

However – and this will come as no surprise to SIGGRAPH members - the entertainment people did see it.

"The Hollywood people were shrewder about the possibilities, and it wasn’t long before Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were banging on Clark’s door and asking to be his first customers."

Limits of Vision

Once the "new new thing" becomes commonplace in many fields, it is hard indeed to understand how it was not obvious to all when first presented. What did Clark and his associates see that others took so long to see? Why couldn’t the Lockheed engineer make, in a flash, the (rather small) conceptual leap? What deficiency of training and nature would make him so literal-minded, so limited in vision? Who were the decision-makers at IBM and Hewlett-Packard who did not immediately see the potential for a profitable new product line - if not a technological revolution? Do these individuals still wince when they remember the role that they played?

The situation would now seem to be quite different. As described in my last column, some leaders in the visualization field are expecting a "shower of products" using new visualization technologies to come to the market within the near future. Over the next year or so, with ever cheaper yet more powerful computers, they argue that "information visualization will pass out of the realm of an exotic research specialty and into the main stream of user interface and application design."

However, Clark moved on some time ago. Given his impressive ability to spawn major innovation and see new trends from afar, it may prove worthwhile to consider just why he moved on (and to what).

Jim Clark has been responsible for starting four "new new" things. With Silicon Graphics he played a major role in the initial widespread acceptance of computer graphics and visualization. With Netscape, he brought the public to the Web and created the dot com stock boom - which, in turn, created revolutions that still reverberate in the worlds of the stock market and venture capital.

With Healtheon, he developed a vision of getting computing to move toward the center of the healthcare business - and he succeeded in getting Wall Street interested even at a difficult time. And, most recently, with myCFO, he is finding ways to tap into the "grievances" of new wealth, seeking to take advantage of "cartel" status to gain preferential services and rates.

Early Warning

I, myself, can recall with some amazement and bafflement that I had my own early warning of the World According to Jim Clark some time ago. Out of curiosity and a concern to keep current, I had attended a presentation at the National Library of Medicine given by a sleepy young programmer who had been up most of the night before preparing a new project for release.

He was talking with delight about the large number of downloads of new software, something he called a "browser," that he and his associates had developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. Of course, his name was Marc Andreessen and he was talking about the new Internet browser called "Mosaic."

It seemed not too long after that I was planning a small visualization conference to be held at the Aspen Institute in Colorado. I wanted to invite Jim Clark. I was told that he had left SGI and I was given the number of a new company then briefly called Mosaic Communications. The name Netscape came soon thereafter. He was too busy.

I still ask myself how was it that I did not understand at this early stage what the possibilities were? But of course, in those days, there were no similar precedents - so it was hard for me to imagine (as for most people) what might happen. Then why, we might ask, was Jim Clark able to see the possibilities?

Rock Off a Cliff

Clark’s first big venture, Silicon Graphics, has long had a special position at SIGGRAPH conferences - indeed, for years it has held the actual central position at the front door of the SIGGRAPH exhibition floor. Over the years, many of the most impressive demonstrations of new technologies were shown first in the SGI exhibition space. For a time SGI was expanding rapidly and hiring activity went into high gear at SIGGRAPH. Clearly, for a time, both SGI and SIGGRAPH were on a roll.

Yet, it was some 10 years ago that Jim Clark saw that the company he had created was doomed. After a motorcycle accident, "in bed waiting for his leg to heal . . . he wrote a paper. It summarized his thinking of the past few years, as he groped for a solution to what he viewed as Silicon Graphics’ inevitable doom."

Clark understood that in time "Microsoft would one day overrun the high end of computing where Silicon Graphics made its money." Clark saw that "Microsoft had made it clear that the only way to preserve your station in [Silicon] Valley life was to create a monopoly. If you created a monopoly, you were at least partially exempt from the ordinary rapid cycle of creation and destruction. In computing, a monopoly took the form of a tollbooth. Bill Gates had his tollbooth, the PC operating system. Jim Clark wanted his own toll booth."

So Clark developed a paper for SIGGRAPH and the SGI Board based on an idea he called the "telecomputer." The ideas he developed were first intended for the television but proved to be perfectly adaptable to the Internet. Here we see that Clark has been remarkably successful in getting entire industries to follow him, even when it was down a blind alley - as with Clark’s telecomputer.

As soon as the big companies (SGI, Microsoft, Sun, Oracle and AT&T) had geared up, competing with each other to make Clark’s vision a reality - all at once they realized, as one of Clark’s engineer’s put it, "that the next big thing was not the television set but the personal computer hooked up to the Internet." Lewis observed, "thousands of people had more or less wasted billions of dollars and, whether they knew it or not, had been following his lead. Then, just as they all ran as a herd in one direction, he took off in another. And within six months [with Netscape] he made them all look like fools. It was one of the great unintentional head fakes in the history of technology."

Indeed, the whole Microsoft antitrust trial that has received so much attention in the past year started because Jim Clark made a phone call. By the time the trial opened, "pretty much everyone, including Clark, had forgotten about the phone call . . . that had set the trial in motion. Certainly no one saw the Microsoft antitrust trial for what it was: yet another rock Clark had pushed off the side of a cliff, and watched with godlike detachment, as it became an avalanche."

Toward the end of Lewis’ book he notes that one of Silicon Valley’s leading venture capitalists has long had a special admiration for Jim Clark and his ability to see the "new new thing" well in advance of others. "Even in the dark periods of their relationship, [John Doerr] spoke of Clark, behind his back, as ‘a national treasure.’"

Limited Success

As successful as visualization technologies and techniques have been in many fields, there are still vast areas that remain untouched. Technologies and techniques that have become standard in some fields are still virtually unknown in others. It is some time ago that Boeing’s 777 was designed entirely on computers (mostly SGIs). Computer images in 3D of real 3D airplane parts may not be hard to handle for most. However, abstract visualizations of large complex data sets may be quite another matter.

What can traditional accountants or stockbrokers make of numbers that are shown as clouds in space, or complex, pulsing histograms? Or, what of traditional physicians who are happy with imaging that extends the microscope or x-ray machine - but have remarkable difficulties with sophisticated information visualization techniques that are indeed truly novel? Or, how do we understand traditional architects or geologists who are so tied to the old methods that they cannot take advantage of the benefits of visualization (in their inherently visual fields). Whether the visualization is directly or indirectly useful, convention is still a strikingly powerful barrier for many. For others, however, the new visualization technologies seem as natural as breathing.

Left in the Dust?

However, if Clark is so prescient, why has he moved on? Considering Clark’s career, we might wonder if his first venture has indeed been left in the dust - whether visualization is over before becoming really big.

Accordingly, we ask again: If visualization is so important, why did Clark leave it behind some time ago? An obvious answer is perhaps that Clark (as portrayed by Lewis) is mainly interested in making a lot of money, not necessarily following a technology through to its fullest application, however radical and revolutionary the consequences. And, in Silicon Valley, that means developing an idea and making a lot of money out of it - before Microsoft swallows up the business and takes it for its own.

So, we might argue that perhaps Clark’s instincts may be correct for making lots of money - but they have little relevance for understanding the longer-term possibilities for computer graphics and information visualization. Indeed, we might speculate that Clark would agree that these technologies still have a very long way to go - but he is personally not interested. They may have an interesting future - but it will be as a mass market for Microsoft and others - with many competitors, including a slimmed-down and less independent SGI (running Microsoft’s NT).

Perhaps there is less fast money to be made - but a bigger technological revolution is yet to unfold. Or, are we just part of another unintentional head fake?


  1.  Lewis, Michael. The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story, W.W. Norton & Company, October 1999.

Thomas G. West is author of In the Mind’s Eye. He continues to write, lecture and consult for organizations interested in the spread of visualization technologies and in the talented visual thinkers with learning difficulties who are such a potent force for discovery.

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.