Graphical Wizardry Bears Close Watching

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2003-02-17 Print this article Print

If you can't trust what you see on a screen, you have to be able to trust the person who's shwoing you something.

Its been about 30 years since Ted Nelson wrote, in his book "Dream Machines," that computer graphics would become the cutting edge of every field, changing the way we approach almost every task.

When I look at the processing power thats being applied to graphics, the size and quality of displays, the effectiveness of compression algorithms, the ubiquity of digital cameras, the increasing affordability of bandwidth, and the growing sophistication of underlying software, its clear that Nelsons prediction will soon be an over-30-year-old that we can trust.

Ironically, though, trusting Nelsons prediction means not trusting anything else. After seeing "The Two Towers" with one of my sons, for example, my strongest impression was that I would never again be able to believe anything that I saw on a video screen. Whether were talking about the incredible animation of a single fantasy character or the individual behaviors of thousands of animated warriors in battle scenes surpassing anything Ive seen before, this movie crosses a threshold.

If you cant trust what you see on a screen, you have to be able to trust the person whos showing you something. Thats why data visualization is becoming more than just a topic for statisticians or perceptual psychologists. People who were skeptical of cooked accounts or statistical claims used to say, "Figures cant lie, but liars can figure"; perhaps we should update that proverb to include "and liars can draw figures." Take a look at some examples, good and bad, of data visualization at

But if unreal events are becoming hard to distinguish from real ones, its also true that real events are becoming impossible to conceal. Multispectral imagery used to be the purview of agencies with classified names, but the camera I bought at the end of last year has built-in infrared illuminators and can take clear pictures in complete (to the human eye) darkness. And wireless links from camera to computer make it pointless to confiscate a journalists memory card. Who knows where the image may already have gone?

The interface from screen to eye to brain is half again the speed of a SCSI connection. Lets use that capacity well.

Tell me how you see things at

Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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