1973; Computer graphics: stochastically shaded spheres & circles
At Andover High School in Michigan I took an experimental computer class; one of
the earliest to give high-schoolers access. I programmed in BASIC
on a remote IBM 360,
using a typewriter-like printed teletype terminal. Though it only had
80 columns of capital letters, the
first thing I did was make pictures. A block of characters was
printed on the page, with denser characters used for darker areas.
The density was calculated by deciding how far the caracter’s
location was from one of several randomly generated centers.
The yellow punched-tape program was about an inch and a half
big when rolled up. Here’s a Java
recreation approximating my first computer graphics.
1973; Interactive game design: find the boy or spaceship
At about the same time I wrote a simple two-dimensional computer
game, with a text interface. You were told that a small boy was lost
in the forest (40 miles square), but he had a radio transmitter
with him. You had a gizmo that would tell you how far you were
from the boy, so as you typed in coordinates the computer would
give back distances. You would solve it by drawing circles on
scratch paper, and finding their intersections. I wrote it again
as a spaceship lost in a cube; somewhat more fun ’cuz it’s harder
to hand draw interpenetrating spheres, though I got good at that, too.
My proto-computer-geek friends enjoyed the challenge with me.
Eventually, though, my teacher told me to get down to working on what
computers were really meant for: writing mortgage amortization tables.
1976; Stochastic fiction engine: Implementing Gahan Wilson’s
At UC Irvine I got access to computers again. Like thousands
of other adolescent boys at the time, I was a devotee of National
Lampoon, where I saw some “automatic horror story generating”
flow-charts that Gahan Wilson drew.
He illustrated branches and loops, and I developed a data-driven
Basic program to make them actually work. Some of the resulting
plot outlines were hilarious, thanks to Mr. Wilson’s dry wit.
I was told by the system administrator that they were one of
the more popular diversions on the system.
1982; Behavioral animation: Worms
When I got my first computer, an Apple ][, I immediately launched
into making moving images. One of the first things I did was a
simple hack at a gravitational model, where a point would
circle a “star” or gravity well. I drew the current position as well
as several past positions to allow you to easily see the trajectory.
Mike Wilk, a close friend at college said he wanted to see the
thing “chase its tail” so we stuck the gravity well to one of the
past positions. Unexpectedly fascinating loops, scrolls, and figures
rewarded our hacking. Here’s a Java
recreation of Worms.
Seeing that such simple rules generated such engaging images and
behavior directed me to hours of tweaking
the parameters, and musing on what exactly made these things
attract and hold my attention. It got even spookier and more
interesting when I created several of the little things, and had them
chase one another in sequence. I noticed that something in me
was watching them as if they were alive, imputing intention to
them. When I finally added
sound (the Apple could generate a square wave at audible
frequencies) and keyed the sound to their velocity I was completely
hooked. Against my better knowledgeI had created the silly things
from trivial arithmetic, after allI empathized with their emotions!
They were clearly sometimes happy and sometimes sad.
1983; Animation exhibition
Jane Aaron, a experimental animator using traditional media, asked me
to exhibit something at a show she put together at an artsy night club
in Manhattan, I think it was called Amazon. I rewrote Worms in the
language Forth (which I learned for the job) on an Atari 800, and asked
that it be installed behind one of the bars. A monitor was hung over
the upstairs bar, and it ran the never-repeating real-time animation
for about three weeks straight. It was low-key and hypnotic, adding
just the quiet wierdness I wanted to the scene.
1984; Professional computer animation: Better Homes and Gardens commercial
The first time I got paid for this stuff never made it on airit was an
opening teaser for ABC news, done with Shadow Light Graphics, a New York
animation house. But the second time made it to national TV. It was a
six-second opening teaser for Better Homes and Gardens Home Improvement
Books. At a time when computer animation was just breaking into the
public consiousness; and everything was flat, square, flying grids; we
designed a full three-dimensional model of a house, and a B-splined
3D camera move.
We paid homage to the grid by starting with a blue
background overlaid with a black grid. White lines drew on one by one
until you could recognize a “blueprint” of a house floor plan; still flat.
But then the camera started moving and you saw the house continue to draw
on in space as the camera swooped in on the window in the front door,
where the ad proper ran. Thanks for the matricies, first edition Foley & Van Dam.
1984; Computer Animation: Clio Awards opening credits animation
I was the computer department for the short-lived Graphic Motion Group,
a New York animation house that did a few commercials with lots of optical
effects and animation. We did the opening animation and credits for the
Clio Awards, and I bought my first tuxedo to attend the ceremony at
Radio City Music Hall. Bright lights and fancy clothes; pretty impressive
to a kid from Michigan.
1984; First company incorporated: Digital Image Design Incorporated
So I started a company devoted to fusing my interests in Art,
Perceptual/Cognitive Psychology, and computers.
1986; 3D editor development: Harold
DID started doing animation to develop those interests.
But I found the hand-entry of points and
hand-coding of camera moves incredibly tedious in this pre-Alias world.
So I bought Digital Effects’ SGI Iris 1400 (serial number 49!) at auction
and started to build a full 3D editing package, conceptually patterned
after the extensible text editor Emacs. It was a much more ambitious
project than I could have known, and I was soon eclipsed by modelers
from Alias, Abel, and Wavefront. But Harold (named after the world-drawing
hero of the children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon) still had
features (like gesture-recognizing commands, arbitrarily-angled multiple
viewports, the ability to draw
in any windowincluding perspective views, and object-oriented
reconfigurable menus) that the big guys didn’t have for a decade.
One of my first lessons in business: it’s not ideas or engineering
alone that make a product.
But I had at least found my career. It turned out that designing how
computers interact with people exercised exactly the disciplines I wanted
to apply. In the grandiose phrases I used to describe this stuff
when I was in my twenties: I was “Building with
Thought and Logic,” because computer programs work only when the
intellectual structures and processes are clear and correct. And it was
“Applied Metaphysics and Epistimology,” because people could use
these programs easily only when I was able to define the program’s entities
and behaviors in a human way; tailoring the way they looked so that
people could easily understand what they were, what they did, and
how to make ’em do it. Fun and deep stuff.
1987; Financial interface design: Chase Manhattan Bank
My “day job” was building financial computer systems. And though there
still wasn’t a field called or “interaction designer,” my boss
and colleagues knew that I liked to lay out screenssomething many
of my colleagues considered boring. But I really enjoyed trying to
figure out how colors and positioning of these text fields on the
first IBM PCs might affect how people liked using them. So they sent
that kind of work my way. I still remember when my boss told me to
hide the mouse I was experimenting with (to see if it might help
people enter data in arbitrary sequences). His boss had told him to
“get that toy off [Brad’s] desk; this is a place of business.”
1989; Financial data visualization: Lehman Brothers
I ran a four-person group in the Lehman advanced technology group
1989; First product: inScape, a Desktop Virtual Reality
All the math and ideas that went into VR CAVEs, a year or two earlier
1991; First hardware product: the Cricket
A 3D Mouse
1994; First successful hardware product: the Monkey
A 3D “doll” used to position human figures in animation programs
2001; First appearance at a major art
institution: Mind'Space at MoMA
And that pretty much brings us up to where the bigger descriptions start