REDMOND, Wash., Aug. 9, 1999 — The most important outcome of the computer graphics revolution, according to Microsoft researcher Jim Blinn, is that it has helped to narrow the gulf between art and science. Computer programmers who make the tools that graphic designers use have been required to learn how artists work, he said. And artists who use computers for design have come to appreciate the mathematical equations that describe geometric shapes.
“Traditionally, there’s been a division between the left brain, right brain type of thinking,”
“Computer graphics bridges that gap, and that’s important to being a complete person and understanding how the world works.”
Microsoft researcher Jim Blinn invented several techniques to give computer images a realistic, three-dimensional look.
Blinn, a graphics fellow at Microsoft Research, has devoted his career to building a sturdy bridge between art and science. An engineer, artist and educator, Blinn is a pioneer in the field of computer animation. He designed many of the tools widely used today to create animated computer images in television commercials, movies and educational videos. He has created everything from the graphic images included in Carl Sagan’s popular
television series to the famous computer simulations of the Voyager spacecraft as it flew past Jupiter and Saturn in the 1970s and 1980s. He has produced educational videos for university and high school students and has shared his knowledge of computer graphics with the world through a long-running computer graphics column. For the past four years, he has worked to simplify the mathematical equations that describe two- and three-dimensional geometric shapes rendered on computer screens.
This Wednesday at the SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference, Blinn will receive the Steven Anson Coons Award for Outstanding Creative Contributions to Computer Graphics, an award presented to a person who has had a
“long-term creative impact on the field of computer graphics.”
Blinn is the first person to win both awards presented by SIGGRAPH. He received SIGGRAPH’s Computer Graphics Achievement Award in 1983, the first year it was established.
“Jim is one of the pioneers, the definition of which is that everything he did helped establish the field as we know it today,”
said Alvy Ray Smith, Microsoft’s first graphics fellow, who has worked with Blinn for the past 25 years.
The Happy Marriage Between Computers and Animation
At age 50, Blinn is still many years away from retirement. Yet his cluttered office on the Microsoft campus is a testament to the industrious career he already has led. The videos stacked on his shelf document the numerous projects on which he has worked. The physics and geometry books scattered on his floor demonstrate Blinn’s wide range of interests in math and science. The empty coke cans and chocolate bar wrappers that fill his garbage can are evidence that Blinn has learned to keep himself awake through long stretches of time.
“Jim seemed to have about a 25-hour cycle, working 17 hours and then sleeping eight, so that his day gradually shifted around the clock,”
said David Goodstein, a physics professor at the California Institute of Technology who worked with Blinn in the 1980s.
“Working with him was a unique, unforgettable experience.”
Tall and lean with a graying ponytail, Blinn is matter-of-fact, soft-spoken and polite. Between meetings, Blinn calmly tells a visitor about his first experience with animation in high school, when he and a friend created some paper cutouts and turned them into an animated cartoon using an 8 mm camera.
“He actually did the artwork,”
he said of his friend,
“and I did the technical stuff.”
Blinn discovered computers for the first time as an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan while browsing through a course catalogue in search of a class to fill an empty slot in his schedule.
Looking through the schedule, I found a course called Beginning Computer Programming and thought, ‘What is that about? That sounds interesting.’ So I signed up for it.”
Soon after discovering computers, Blinn became interested in using them as a way to create pictures.
“I was interested in making pictures and making animations, but I didn’t have a lot of skill at drawing — I had skill in geometry and mathematics,”
“The computer was a good marriage to my math skills because I could create animations without having to draw individual pictures myself. I could make animations with mathematical equations.”
Blinn received his bachelor’s degree in physics and communications science from the University of Michigan in 1970, before computer science was offered as a college subject. He went on to earn a master’s degree in engineering at Michigan and a Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Utah in 1978, at a time when the
had yet to become a household term.
“Computers were expensive and they didn’t have a lot of memory, and making pictures with computers was a lot harder to do than it is now,”
“But you could still do stuff. Even with a slow computer, you could have it use simple pictures and hook them up to see the animation. And it was a lot faster than doing animation in the traditional sense, which required making pictures somehow, exposing them on film, getting the film developed, and projecting the film — a several-day process.”
Designing Realistic-Looking Images for the Screen
While earning his Ph.D., Blinn invented several techniques that have given computer images a realistic, 3-D look. One of these techniques, called
allows graphic designers to add texture to surfaces.
“You can emboss a surface or give it a texture like leather or what not,”
It’s the sort of thing that shows up on the skins of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park .”
Blinn also helped to invent
a technique that makes objects appear shiny and accurately reflect light from their environment.
“One of the aspects of making images in computer animation is figuring out how light reflects off the surfaces and how much light gets from the light source to the eye,”
“I figured out a bunch of mathematical models for this, extrapolated from papers in the physics community, and adapted them in the computer graphics area.”
Blinn said he was fascinated by the ability of computers to generate 3-D images that move across the screen.
“Nowadays, every commercial and station-break logo and 90 percent of Hollywood movies are done with 3-D graphics, so it’s kind of old hat,”
“People grow up with it, and don’t realize there’s another way of doing it. But when you create a shaded image, and see it rotate on the screen in front of you for the first time, it’s very magical.”
After completing his Ph.D., Blinn joined the computer graphics department at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. One of his first projects was to create a visual simulation of the Voyager 1 spacecraft as it flew by the outer planet Jupiter.
“One group had some money left over at the end of the fiscal year and spent it on graphics equipment because they thought it might be interesting to see what could be done,”
“And so when I got there, they had the path of the spacecraft and the timing all figured out, and I took that data and used it as the script for the movie.”
Using the limited equipment available at the time, Blinn developed several new computer graphics techniques to create the Voyager spacecraft simulations, which television stations then broadcast to millions of people throughout the world.
“TV stations would show the simulations in the background as the reporter would say, ‘Today the Voyager spacecraft did so and so,'”
Blinn also created the computer graphics images incorporated into Carl Sagan’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) television series, Cosmos . In addition to creating numerous line drawings, Blinn worked with an artist to illustrate the gradual evolution of a single-cell organism into a human being.
“I wrote the software to digitize and transform the shapes of the lines from one creature to the next to give you a smooth transition from a one-celled organism to a human being, which was somewhat metaphorical as to how it actually happened,”
Blinn said. He also created a scene showing the replication of a DNA molecule.
“That was a major effort, because it required color-shaded imagery as well as the invention of a lot of new rendering techniques for that type of shape,”
Blinn’s early work in computer graphics drew the attention of several Hollywood movie producers, who began calling Blinn to request demonstrations of the special effects he was incorporating into his videos.
“A lot of people went out and started their own computer graphics groups and special effects houses after seeing the demos I’d done,”
“It opened their eyes to the existence of these things.”
Bringing Science and Math to Life for Students
Upon completing the animated drawings for the Voyager and Cosmos projects, Blinn began working on The Mechanical Universe , a five-year project produced by Caltech and funded by the Annenberg Foundation to teach physics to college-level students. The televised course, which was broadcast on PBS, involved the production of 8-1/2 hours of animation for 52 half-hour video programs. After completing the project in 1987, Blinn began working full-time for Caltech on a video series called Project MATHEMATICS!, used by instructors to teach basic mathematical concepts to more than 9 million high school students worldwide.
The goal of both projects was to make math and science more understandable and interesting to students by incorporating special effects into the videos. The videos also used animation to illustrate scientific phenomena that cannot be seen by the human eye.
“We were able to graphically show things moving close to the speed of light and then slowing down, so you can see the effects of special relativity and visualize physics processes that are not normally visible,”
Goodstein, the Caltech professor who worked with Blinn on The Mechanical Universe project, called the computer graphics Blinn produced
“astonishing.” “I can’t begin to tell you how important he was to that project,”
“The Mechanical Universe today remains one of the principal teaching tools for introductory physics in colleges and high schools everywhere. I think its popularity is pretty much due to Jim’s work.”
While working for JPL and Caltech, Blinn also taught some early courses in computer graphics at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena using Atari home game computers and
programming language. Students sketched 3D shapes on graph paper, and used a word processor to type in numerical coordinate data that was displayed as shapes on the screen.
“I think these courses changed the thinking of a lot of people, who realized that computer graphics was something worth learning about and pursuing,”
He also began writing a regular column for IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications Journal that has received widespread praise within the computer graphics community for its concepts and clarity.
“Jim made an entire generation of graphics programmers aware of the subtleties of computer graphics through his columns,”
said Turner Whitted, a Microsoft researcher who first met Blinn as a graduate student in 1977.
Perfecting the Equations that Generate Graphics
When funding for Project MATHEMATICS! dried up in 1995, Blinn contacted Smith and Jim Kajiya at Microsoft Research. Three months later, he joined Microsoft as the company’s second graphics fellow. As a user of personal computers since 1988, Blinn said Microsoft was a company he had
“a lot of respect for.”
In addition, the company was working on three-dimensional software tools like Direct 3D, and Blinn wanted to make sure Microsoft
“got it right.”
Since joining Microsoft, Blinn has been working to simplify some of the complex mathematical equations used to generate elaborate shapes on the computer.
“There are a lot of details involved in the arithmetic, and doing it right is kind of slow,”
“I’m trying to come up with ways of doing it right and fast at the same time.”
Blinn’s colleagues at Microsoft describe him as easygoing, yet focused and disciplined about his work.
“He always strips back to the basics until he can understand every aspect of a problem,”
“He is very disciplined.”
“If I may make a generalization, Jim’s work has always been well-grounded mathematically while much of the other work was more ad-hoc,”
“I believe that this has either inspired or shamed others to be more rigorous in their research.”
With so many people incorporating computer graphics into their films and videos, have these tools been taken as far as they can go? It’s true that computer animation has evolved from a far-fetched idea into a common and pervasive tool over the last 30 years, Blinn said.
“So on one level it’s kind of done.”
Nevertheless, there’s still room for improvement, he said. For example, it’s much easier to create realistic-looking objects and animals than it is to create realistic-looking humans. And the software and hardware used to create animated images can still be improved to create more images, more quickly.
While it’s unlikely that computer animation will continue to evolve at the same pace as it has during the past three decades, one thing is certain, Blinn said.
“I’ve been in the business long enough to realize that computer animation is a slowly evolving process rather than a bunch of radical discoveries,”
“Each year is slightly better than the previous year, but it just keeps on going.”