SCS Distinguished Lecture

  • Gates Hillman Centers
  • Rashid Auditorium 4401
  • Co-founder, Pixar and Altamira
  • First Director of Computer Graphics, Lucasfilm
  • Advisor, Baobab Studios
SCS Distinguished Lectures

Digital Light: A Biography of the Pixel

An unheralded event at the millennium was the Great Digital Convergence when all media types finally coalesced into one universal medium, the bit. The visual aspect of this large event is called Digital Light, in which bits take the form of pixels. Thus Digital Light is any picture mediated by pixels, and one theory explains the entire vast domain. We’re now awash in a sea of pixels, yet they are surprisingly ill understood, leading to all sorts of modern misunderstandings. I will present the theory intuitively, give its surprising history, and correct the myths already abounding. I will start with Fourier and the French Revolution and end with the first digital movies at the millennium from Pixar, DreamWorks, and Blue Sky—first fruits of the Great Digital Convergence. It will be a quick trip through the histories of sampling, computers, movies, television, and computer graphics. Digital Light is much larger than computer graphics, the part that, by definition, begins with an internal geometric model. But since I know it best, I use the pathway through it as an armature from which to hang all of Digital Light—from parking meters to cellphones, from dashboards to movies, from hurricane tracking to Mars rovers, from videogames to flight simulators, etc., and not forgetting the printed page. I will show you the first pixels—they appeared surprisingly early—and the first color pixels. (And, if you think that pixels are little squares, please come hear my talk.)

Alvy Ray Smith cofounded two successful startups: Pixar (sold to Disney) and Altamira (sold to Microsoft), He was the first director of computer graphics at Lucasfilm, an original member of the Computer Graphics Lab of the New York Institute of Technology and first Graphics Fellow at Microsoft. We was at Xerox PARC for the birth of the personal computer, the internet, and some of the earliest color pixels. Amond his accomplishments: he received two technical Academy Awards, for the alpha channel and digital paint systems and invented the first full-color paint program, the HSV (or HSB) color transform, and the alpha channel; he directed the Genesis Demo in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan; he hired John Lasseter and directed him in The Adventures of André & Wally B.; He proposed and negotiated the Academy-Award winning Disney computer animation production system, CAPS; and was Instrumental, as a Regent, in initiating the Visible Human Project of the National Library of Medicine. He was star witness in a trial that successfully invalidated five patents that threatened Adobe Photoshop. He is active in the development of the HDTV standard, arguing for progressive scan.

Dr. Smith holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University and honorary doctorate from New Mexico State University. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science nd has published widely in theoretical computer science (cellular automata theory) and computer graphics. He is also the creator of many pieces of computer art, including Sunstone in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (with Ed Emshwiller), and holds four patents. He is now writing a book, A Biography of the Pixel. Dr. Smith is an advisor to Baobab Studios, an award-winning VR startup in Silicon Valley.

Faculty Hosts: Lenore Blum, Manuel Blum

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