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Graphic Roots

Gaming and other areas of computing-business, academic research, the Internet and more-have had a symbiotic relationship since the early days of video games, with hardware and software developments frequently crossing from one field to another and driving the evolution of both.

Home game consoles, introduced in the early 1970s, preceded the home computer revolution of the 1980s. In fact, devices like the Magnavox Odyssey (see “Video Game Odyssey,” p. 96), the first successful game console, and the blockbuster Atari 2600 VCS were computers that novices could easily set up and hook to their TVs. The idea of using a TV as a graphical display persisted in early home computers like the Atari 400 and 800, the Commodore 64 and the Apple II. Although the television didn’t end up being a great computer display, it helped computers gain a foothold in the home. Meanwhile, the games played on these early systems made graphics and sound capabilities more common and therefore affordable, fast-forwarding the development of other uses of graphics, in areas like desktop publishing. “The first computer that many homes had was a game console,” says Trip Hawkins, founder of leading game maker Electronic Arts and now CEO of another game company, 3DO. “The video game has gone a long way to demystify computer technology.”

Because of its implications for both games and computing, graphics innovation has proceeded at a torrid pace. It was impressive enough when computers, which used to draw spaceships as triangles shooting square projectiles at star-shaped enemies, offered gamers in the mid-1990s a first-person view of underground mazes, simulating the experience of walking through a blocky environment. Now, game consoles have marched into photorealistic 3-D-rendering, in real time, scenes as complex as a nighttime street with rain and puddles reflecting neon lights, which two decades ago would have taken the most powerful computers weeks to generate. Although computer-generated people may not pass for movie images of real actors just yet, the skin tones and ever smoother features of these 3-D models are starting to cause double takes. “We may only be two generations away from graphics being good enough that it doesn’t need to get any better,” says Hawkins, one of many game industry veterans who name graphics as the most important video game technology, past and present. “The video game is driving the demand for graphic computing. You wouldn’t even have graphics cards in PCs if it weren’t for games.”

New graphics capabilities, however, suggest new applications. Graphical user interfaces are one area where the influence of games may soon play a major role. Microsoft Research’s User Interface group, for example, has developed a new interface called Task Gallery to replace today’s computer “desktop” (see “The Next Computer Interface,” TR December 2001). In this 3-D virtual environment, users represent files and folders as pieces of art in a gallery. The 3-D space lets the researchers create visual relationships that help users remember where things have been stored.

George Robertson, who heads the Task Gallery group, notes that a key part of the effort is to create technologies that let users readily find their way around a 3-D environment by, say, reproducing the perspective shifts they would experience navigating through connected rooms or negotiating turns. Video game developers are often ahead of his group. “The computer science researchers who work on 3-D navigation techniques pay close attention to what goes on in the gaming community,” says Robertson. “There’s a real symbiosis.” He also believes that kids who are growing up playing games with 3-D environments will start demanding the same kind of interactivity from other computing applications. “The gaming community is definitely building a user population for us.”

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