Digital Light
September 13, 2021 10:04 PM   Subscribe

Meet the Little-Known Genius Who Helped Make Pixar Possible [ungated] - "Alvy Ray Smith helped invent computer animation as we know it—then got royally shafted by Steve Jobs. Now he's got a vision for where the pixel will take us next."[1,2,3]
Pixel is a deep and challenging tome in the spirit of Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a winding tale of science, heroes, and tyrants, all leading to the moment, sometime around the beginning of our current century, when a long-predicted digital convergence coalesced. Almost all expression—visual, textual, audio, video, you name it—has moved to the machine world, which, perhaps counterintuitively, is no less real than our physical reality. And that is not a metaphorical equivalence. It is, Smith argues, literal.

He calls this second reality Digital Light, and it’s pretty much what all of us look at and listen to when we’re not in the middle of a forest. He didn’t coin the term—it was first uttered about a decade ago by a conference organizer who asked him to give a talk with that title. “It was a term that’s everything I wanted it to be,” he says, covering “all these different aspects of what people do with pixels.”

Digital Light, as he documents, emerged into the world through a long and twisted scientific process; it’s a picaresque tale with unexpected protagonists—Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier, Vladimir Kotelnikov, Alan Turing—whose lives he exhumes with the passion of an obsessive genealogist. Putting together their contributions on the nature of light, sampling, and computation, Smith makes a convincing case that there’s no difference between analog and digital reality. It’s a belief that he’s held for decades. Barbara Robertson, a computer graphics journalist, remembers sitting with him at a café and hearing him say, after a contemplative silence, “You, know, everything is just waves.”

Oh, and the subject of this biography, the pixel, is not what we generally think it is. Forget your misguided belief that a pixel is one of those tiny squares on your screen. Smith explains that the pixel is the product of a two-part process in which an element of some consciously created content is presented on some sort of display. Friends, you are not looking at pixels on your screen but the expression of those pixels. What you see is Digital Light. The pixel itself? That’s just an idea. Once you get this distinction, it’s clear that Digital Light is not a second-class reality. In the 21st century, it’s equal. “Just the simple idea of separating pixels from display elements is going to seem revolutionary to people who don’t understand the technology,” Robertson says.
-Making of the Genesis Sequence from Star Trek II
-The Adventures of Andre & Wally B
posted by kliuless (19 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Remarkable. 20 years ago, I studied his work on cellular automata from the 1970's -- Turing universalilty and self-reproduction and the like. He was a real pioneer. I had no idea that he had gone on to do all that other stuff later! What a story.
posted by brambleboy at 10:50 PM on September 13 [2 favorites]

I'm still holding out for virtual light.
posted by valkane at 11:31 PM on September 13 [4 favorites]

I went into this thinking, okay, this is going to be about a hippie that people liked whose contribution was dubious, but boy, this is the guy who invented alpha transparancy and anti-aliasing!

Also, you know, the point that the points on the screen are a representation of a pixel is broadly true, so I have a lot of time for his more... challenging assertions.
posted by Merus at 12:26 AM on September 14 [7 favorites]

Looking forward to the book.

Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation by Tom Sito talks about NYIT and a wider view of CG history.

Principles of Digital Image Synthesis by Andrew Glassner has arguably a whole 500p volume about pixel adjacent stuff too.
posted by haemanu at 2:48 AM on September 14 [2 favorites]

If you are interested about the origins of interactive computing and the personal computer I highly recommend What the Doormouse Said by John Markoff. It describes how the 1960s counterculture in the San Francisco Bay area was integral to the PC revolution. The tail goes back to just after the end of WW2, and is intertwined with drug culture, the birth of video recording, andthe computer mouse, shadowy figures associated with what became the CIA, the anti-war movement In Berkeley and Stanford, and the Grateful Dead, among other things.
By the way, I have a set of manuals for the Pixar Image Computer. I acquired them well after Pixar went out of business. They have been gathering dust for a long time, but after reading this I'll pull them out again and take a look. The machine was based on 2901 bit slice ALU chips and had a 48 bit wide data path with 12 bit R, G, B, and Alpha channels. Nothing like it exists today and the hardware itself was a dead end, even though the fundamental concepts of four channel color are in every smart phone and PC.
Alvy Ray Smith had a profound impact on our day to day lives and I very much look forward to reading his book, all 560 pages of it.
posted by Metacircular at 3:19 AM on September 14 [10 favorites]

I found this article great, and much better than the clickbaity line about Steve Jobs suggested - and I can't wait to read the book! If the idea of wading into some kind of cranky business conflict memoir turned you away from clicking the link as it nearly did me, don't worry too much about it. (and don't derail this thread into talking about steve jobs lol)
posted by thedaniel at 4:55 AM on September 14 [3 favorites]

I found this article great, and much better than the clickbaity line about Steve Jobs suggested

Evidently his lung infection was also Steve Jobs' fault.
posted by Fleebnork at 5:03 AM on September 14 [2 favorites]

It's quite unfortunate that Wired once again dips into woo and cryptobabble. The subject matter seems interesting, otherwise, in the larger context of the story of digital imaging.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 5:07 AM on September 14

" but boy, this is the guy who invented alpha transparancy and anti-aliasing!"

If you got this impression, you have been misled. This stuff was rehashed all the time at CGL. If Alvy had aha! moments, they were his alone, and long after many others had theirs.

I haven't read the book. I may not, as it seems to be wooly-brained adolescent musings about 'real meaning' of pixel (it was just a shortening of the phrase 'picture element' that was used because it is impossible to use 'picture element' twice in a sentence and have it make sense).

Pixel is no more well-defined than any other word--try defining chair or freedom or yellow. Humpty Dumpty had it right--it's not the words you use, it's what you mean.

Many have had the experience of explaining something (especially to a boss) and, days later, have the boss explain to you this wonderful new idea he has come up with. In this way, slow comprehension and defective memories lead to the illusion that one is creative.

And documenting his experience with Steve Jobs? What is that doing in a presumably technical book? Imagine if Einstein had included his divorce proceedings in the exposition of general relativity.
posted by hexatron at 6:43 AM on September 14 [4 favorites]

Yeah I get it but his colleagues in his incredibly successful and pioneering work in industry all praise his contributions it seems so maybe, I dunno, he did some worthwhile things
posted by thedaniel at 6:49 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]

Everything I read about Steve Jobs makes him come across as more and more of an asshole. What a thoroughly unpleasant wanker.
posted by dazed_one at 7:02 AM on September 14 [9 favorites]

The [Pixar Image Computer] was based on 2901 bit slice ALU chips

Which was the same math chip Atari was cramming into of tens of thousands of arcade machines during the same era. Another AMPEX child that spread roots throughout the valley.
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:03 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]

Just heard his talk about the book via some online conference, just a fount of interesting details about the personalities, trials and tribulations of the start of the 3D era. The start of Pixar was really quite interesting, not quite like any details I'd heard before (Jobs was the investor of last resort, not at all a 'creator')
posted by sammyo at 8:54 AM on September 14 [2 favorites]

@Metacircular, that Pixar device sounds interesting. I looked it up on Wikipedia, which claims that the Pixar Image Computer became commercially available in the first half of 1986, after a development process that began in 1979. That was just about the time I started getting paid to make computers do things, and I recall reading about bit-slice designs in a book about microcomputer design principles from that era. But I never encountered such a thing in the wild. That I recognized as such. I see above that Atari arcade machines used them also.

Everything I read about Steve Jobs makes him come across as more and more of an asshole. What a thoroughly unpleasant wanker.

@dazed_one, I think that is just about universal among the guys who went from the Homebrew Computer Club days to Titans of Tech. In the cases of all of them, I'm pretty sure, there's somebody who did most of the actual technology creation and got paid basically peanuts for it.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 10:50 AM on September 14 [3 favorites]

Those interested in this topic may want to check out DroidMaker.. an exploration of the innovations that can be partly credited to the creatives involved with LucasFilm. I don't know enough about this history to gauge the accuracy of the claims, but it does appear as though there was a period when LucasFilm was where a lot of stuff was happening and the shadow extends well beyond the Star Wars property.. def. touching on Pixar, also.
posted by elkevelvet at 11:34 AM on September 14

"Ces-çi ne sont pas des pixels." (Inscription on the Platonic cave wall.)
posted by k3ninho at 12:46 PM on September 14 [1 favorite]

The book is a bit of a mash of many things, think of an afternoon spent with an older uncle who happens to have founded Pixar, or a drive with a talkative Uber driver obsessed with the fact that no one understands what a pixel really is. Just to give an idea of the style:

"Two centuries ago the Frenchman Joseph Fourier extended that notion to all our sensory experience. Everything we see and hear is a sum of waves. It’s all music. In this book I show you how to see the music in a visual scene."

"The conditions for the progress of a new technology appear to be an excellent idea, a disruptive chaos that demands and drives the idea’s development, and a tyrant or tyranny that—often unknowingly—protects the creators while they advance the idea."

Okeeeey. But I am enjoying it.

Does anyone know of a book about the history of NYiT that is not so Pixar centric?
posted by haemanu at 2:11 PM on September 14

@dazed_one, I think that is just about universal among the guys who went from the Homebrew Computer Club days to Titans of Tech. In the cases of all of them, I'm pretty sure, there's somebody who did most of the actual technology creation and got paid basically peanuts for it.

Steve Wozniak was there, I seem to remember, so there was at least one person with actual skillz there. But it should be remembered, if you were in the HCC back then, you were by definition really well-to-do. Behind The Bastards did an episode on Bill Gates recently, he came from there, but he also had an absurdly privileged upbringing, his parents indulged his interests despite him being quite shitty towards them at time, his school got given computers long before Apple IIs were a thing, and he was also given free time on timeshares. And he was right there in Silicon Valley. And he had a friend who was heavily business-oriented who tragically died in a climbing accident, which sort of bestowed his business focus upon the young Bill Gates. Right place, right time, a mountain of social capital, oh and his parents were rich.
posted by JHarris at 7:28 PM on September 14 [3 favorites]

It's hard to know what his contribution really was, but there does seem to be something there. Regardless, it was interesting to read about some of the history of how computer animation came to be. Thanks for posting.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 12:39 PM on September 15

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