Visions of the Future for Computer Graphics and Communication
KP: Every corporation thinks that it is forever. IBM thought that it was forever, Apple is probably under the illusion that it is. Google thinks that it is, but they're not. They come and they go, and they're good at something and then somebody else comes along with something they completely did not see coming, and then they go the way of DEC. So corporations have their time, and in their time they make vast amounts of money and then they're gone.
I think people who are in academic research say it's great that there are these engines of commerce that throw some things out into vast capitalization states, but the work that I'm doing, I don't care what company ends up making money off it, whether it's 5 years from now, 10 years, 25 years from now. The company, in the long run, is just the vehicle for the change that happens in the way people do things. And then the company goes out of business and people still benefit from the set of evolutions. Whoever was predominant in making paperback books in the late 1800s and revolutionizing how people read, that company is not around anymore. But it doesn't matter, the change happened.
So if we really think long term, we shouldn't focus on Apple or whoever the equivalent of Apple is going to be in 20 years.
DS: Fair enough. Tell me a little bit about some of your own research. You have such an excellent perspective on some of the broader issues, but you have your own projects. Tell us a little bit about some of what you're doing and where you see that going.
KP: I've come to think that there is a gap in some of the research and academic focus. C.P. Snow talked about the two cultures. The culture of the arts and the culture of the sciences and technology, and how they have very, very different ways of thinking about things. One of the things that I have loved about the SIGGRAPH community, and the reason that I am in graphics as much as anything else, is that it's the closest we have to those two cultures coming together. It's an absolutely top ACM conference for computer science PhD students to make their chops by publishing papers at an A-rated conference, and at the same time it's a vehicle by which people can express themselves artistically in ways that no one's ever seen before. But there's been a disconnect. I think what's happened is that some of the early pioneers, Myron Krueger, some of the early stuff that Alan Kay was doing, some of the early work that Hiroshi Ishii was doing, a number of other people had been looking at things primarily in terms of, “I'm a person, you're a person, how do I communicate with you? Right now, how do we talk? How do we use technology to make this better?”
And human-computer interfaces, the whole SIGCHI community had veered away from that into, “How do I make a better version of Google SketchUp? How do I make a tool to make something?” As opposed to a tool for me to communicate with you. Every time people try to make a tool for me to communicate with you, it gets a little too computer-sciency, a little too technical, too engineering for my tastes. Too much about “Let's use these engineering assessment measures to see if this works.”
Meanwhile, I think Hollywood has been presenting these visions about what it would be like if we really could communicate better, but they're not really doing it. Cameron gives you Avatar, and then you see the heads-up display that Iron Man has, and then you see whatever is that crazy interface that alien had in District 9. So there are these visions of what we really want, for the technology to serve us and communicate in this very seamless way.
So I'm interested in seeing these cultures of the arts-infused visions of “What do we want,” connected with the kind of engineering expertise to make it happen, and to pull together something that's not about trying to get this task done, but rather, “I'm trying to use this stuff to communicate with you,” which is not pure technology. It can't be pure technology, it has to be a lot of people with great artistic insights, great intuition, hacking on things until we figure out what really works between people. That's not going to be done by human factor studies. That's going to be done by a wide ranging playful exploration of the possibilities. I've become really interested in trying to find that thing that's between SIGGRAPH and SIGCHI that's about interactive human-to-human communication.
DS: Last thing. From a purely personal standpoint, at this point in your career, what gives you the most sense of satisfaction?
KP: When people get together and do things with technology and we all feel this genuine sense of wonder at the possibilities of how to better communicate with each other, that's when I feel it. I'm working on that and other people are working on that as well, so I see that sense of wonder in a number of places. I certainly see it in our own work, but certainly not only in our own work. There is a community of people who are interested in that.
Dr. Perlin directs the NYU Games For Learning Institute. He was also founding director of the Media Research Laboratory and director of the NYU Center for Advanced Technology. For more information about his work, visit his website at http://cs.nyu.edu/~perlin/.
Dan Sarto is publisher of AnimationWorld Network.