Q&A: Microsoft Graphics Guru Dr. Alvy Ray Smith Talks About PhotoDraw 2000 and the Future of Computer Graphics

REDMOND, Wash., September 14, 1998 — Dr. Alvy Ray Smith served as a leader of four prestigious computer graphic centers before joining Microsoft as its first Graphics Fellow in 1994. He was a founder of Altamira Software Corporation and Pixar, and worked as director of Lucasfilm Ltd. and as senior scientist in the Computer Graphics Laboratory at New York Institute of Technology. Dr. Smith has received two technical Academy Awards, and was co-recipient of the Computer Graphics Achievement Award from the Association for Computing Machinery SIGGRAPH in 1990.

At Microsoft, Dr. Smith has helped guide the direction of computer graphics applications such as Image Composer and Picture It! His ideas contributed to the development of PhotoDraw 2000, a new software graphics program that enables business users to easily create and incorporate professional-looking graphics into their Web sites and printed materials. Microsoft announced PhotoDraw 2000 this week. Below, Microsoft PressPass asks Dr. Smith about the state of the graphics industry and the advances in PhotoDraw 2000.

In your opinion, how has the graphics industry changed over the course of the last 10 years?

The most dramatic change in graphics occurred when the PC “grew up,” meaning that it became powerful enough to perform graphics for the ordinary person at ordinary prices. This began to happen, by my clock anyway, about 10 years ago. That’s when it first became conceivable to do interesting graphics on PCs. They are much farther along now. By Moore’s Law-the rule that defines our digital revolution-computers get better by a factor of 10 every five years. So today’s PCs are about 100 times more graphics-capable than they were only a decade ago. That’s an astonishing advance. It’s what makes it possible for us to deliver PhotoDraw 2000 to PC users. We couldn’t have done it in the 1980s-or even five years ago.

Today we have everything from music videos to high-quality graphics on the Web. Is society becoming more visual?

Society has always desired to be more visual. It’s simply human to see. But until the last century the technology simply didn’t exist. During the last 50 years or so we have mastered color photography, color movies, color television and videos, and color printing. We have just entered the digital era of inexpensive picture making, which has given us the Web, digital photography, digital documents, multimedia, digital films (like Titanic and Toy Story) and soon digital TV. Society is finally able to be as visual as it has always desired. We demand pictures when they can be easily created. A picture is easier on our eyes and our minds than text. And, as is often observed, a good picture or graphic can carry a lot more information.

Why have graphics become such a necessary tool for businesses today?

It follows from the observation that society is more visual today that business must be, too. We demand information via pictures when it is possible and easy to do so, as it now is. Pictures captivate. With the ever-increasing number of we potential customers, graphics will be used to reach more of us, more efficiently, than text could ever hope to do. Graphics grab attention first, and then deliver the message more quickly and efficiently-even painlessly. The effective use of graphics also serves as a measure of sophistication for a business. The quality of a company’s products is reflected in the quality of its visual representations.

How will visual technologies influence the way we do business?

Since pictures fall along the path of least resistance for human beings, I find it hard to imagine that business could resist using any and all easy, efficient technologies for producing visuals. I predict that text-centric business presentations–that is, lots of text with the occasional graphic appended later–will soon be supplanted in ordinary business by picture-centric presentations, where the pictures come first and then supporting text is added. The Web, in particular, encourages this natural reversal. Text will always be required for thoughtful, careful analyses, but pictures will be used to make the first impressions, grab attention, sink the message, establish the aura and so forth.

What led you to the concept of Microsoft’s new graphics program, PhotoDraw 2000?

About five years ago-or a factor of 10 ago using Moore’s Law–PCs were ready for the final integration of all picture-making techniques into what I have been calling “The Single Creative App.” This vision says we can-and should-bring together into a single unified environment 2-D and 3-D as well as image-based and geometry-based pictures. Microsoft was an ideal place to realize this vision since it has very little legacy in this arena. PhotoDraw 2000 is the first big step.

What is PhotoDraw and what graphics problem does it solve?

Computer graphics professionals have always distinguished image-based picture making from geometry-based picture making — sometimes this is called the raster vs. vector distinction. Raster file formats record images in terms of pixels, whereas vector files record images descriptively, in terms of geometric shapes. Until now, computer graphics professionals have been required to buy separate applications for each of these two file formats-applications that worked in completely different ways, depending on the type of graphics. Frequently these applications don’t know about one another, requiring the user to make file conversions between them. Thus, graphics tools have long been a challenge for the non-professional.

The Single Creative App vision brings together raster and vector images into a single application. PhotoDraw is the first very serious integration of raster and vector picture creation tools in such a way that a user does not have to know the distinction. Only one user interface must be mastered-and it looks familiar to Microsoft Office users. No file conversions are required. But most importantly, the two types of images are truly integrated. PhotoDraw also solves the terminology problem for users-it presents all its tools and options using pictures and text, so users can become graphically adept without mastering the language of a different industry.

What inspired Microsoft to develop PhotoDraw?

One of Microsoft’s major strengths is its ability to respond to its customers. The message it got was loud and clear: business users now want a simple, efficient graphics tool integrated with their other office apps, and they are not willing to pass through a learning curve the size of those tolerated by a graphics professional.

How would you describe Microsoft’s development process for PhotoDraw?

I was blown away by the PhotoDraw development process. I had only read about top-down software design, but didn’t believe anybody actually did it. But Microsoft does. The company specified the product completely, for months, before a single line of code was written. The final specification was revised three times and was about five inches thick. It included such considerations as accessibility for people with disabilities. Then coding and testing began simultaneously and furiously. At the same time, teams were working to develop a user interface and documentation for the product, while other teams translated the documentation into 16 languages. The book for MS Press was begun. And all of this was overseen by a practiced management team. It is a beautiful process to behold. Those who say Microsoft writes non-innovative, untested code by mediocre programmers simply don’t know what they are talking about. You can’t execute a better software process than this.

What will PhotoDraw allow business users to do that they couldn’t do before?

They will be able to create simple, captivating graphics themselves within minutes. Part of this comes from a vast supply of “raw materials,” that is, clip art galleries and image collections. But more importantly, with little effort these can be customized in hundreds of different ways to become original contributions of the user. For example, PhotoDraw enables a user to lay paint strokes down along the lines of ordinary clip art, giving it an artistic look. And this is done automatically. The user selects clip art, paint-stroke style and color; PhotoDraw does the rest. A rather pedestrian piece of clip art becomes, with little effort, an effective graphic for the user’s purpose-and one that expresses his or her personality.

What are some of the ways users can edit and manipulate photos, illustrations and clip art using PhotoDraw?

Fundamental to PhotoDraw is the ability to combine images and drawings-for example, a digital camera shot and a piece of clip art-into interesting compositions. Text can be added too in many dazzling new ways, including the paint stroking mentioned above. Another innovative effect is what we call Photo Brushes, where a photographic image is made to lie along the lines of geometric art, such as clip art or text. For example, a photograph of a steel link chain can be made to curve around a shape such as an ellipse or a freeform curve. A full set of image editing features is included for touch up and correction of photos, obtained either via a scanner or a digital camera or grabbed from TV. And a complete “infinite” undo is available, meaning that users can go back and undo as many previous steps as they would like.

What impact will PhotoDraw 2000 have on the everyday business user’s life?

I would expect PowerPoint users to begin thinking about adding graphics to almost every slide once they discover how easy it is. I would expect Web page builders to begin thinking picture-centricly when they find how easy it is to add images to FrontPage Web pages. I expect Word users to start including punchy graphics in their documents. And the same with Publisher users. Conversely, I would expect business people to begin to groan when confronted with boring white Arial text on blue background slides. In other words, I expect business users to begin to measure seriousness by care in using graphics-much like they do now in the use of language.

Is there anything PhotoDraw delivers that can’t be found elsewhere?

Yes. No one has seriously integrated painting and drawing (raster and vector graphic images) before to such a depth and as seamlessly as PhotoDraw. This integration is everywhere in the app, from the simple to the arcane. For example, the transparency brush used to “paint transparency” onto an object works with clip art, photos, photo strokes, text and so on. The same tools work on anything created or edited in PhotoDraw. And the Office-like user interface makes learning this app simple for the businessperson familiar with the Microsoft productivity apps.

Where do you see the graphics industry heading in the future?

Faster, cheaper, and better. Moore’s Law continues to crank out advances at revolutionary rates. Ten years from now, PCs will have 100 times more memory and be 100 times faster. Awesome! What this means practically is that ordinary office applications will be able to handle animation, 3-D, interactivity and sound. For perspective, note that each frame of Toy Story took seven hours to compute on machines much more powerful than PCs. I expect to see the full Single Creative App come into existence and become the accepted way of doing graphics. Our challenge is to bring this to the business user in a useful, easy-to-learn and easy-to-use form.

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