Computer graphics

Professor Pat Hanrahan wins Turing Prize for his work in computer graphics

On March 18, the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) awarded Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering Patrick M. “Pat” Hanrahan the prestigious Turing Prize for his work in 3D computer graphics and computer-generated imagery. The prize, often referred to as the Nobel Prize in Computer Science, has only been awarded once to a computer graphics researcher in its 54-year history. Hanrahan shares the million dollar prize with Ed Catmull, his collaborator and longtime friend. Hanrahan joins a long list of distinguished recipients that includes former Stanford President John Hennessy and Emeritus Professor of Electrical Engineering Martin Hellman.

For Hanrahan, that’s another feather in his proverbial hat, which also includes three Oscars for his technical accomplishments.

He began his academic career as a biophysics student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1980s, he told The Daily in an interview. There he worked on the simulation of the nervous system of nematode worms. His simulations, still in the early days of computing, printed pages and pages of numbers without any visual representation.

He also held a job in the Wisconsin-Madison physics department, plotting graphical simulations by hand for faculty. Her roommate, sorry for the time Hanrahan spent creating charts by hand, suggested computer graphics as a way to speed up her work and research. It did, and for Hanrahan it ended up being a turning point, because he “thought it was the most amazing concept.”

After completing his doctorate. in 1985, Hanrahan joined Pixar. It was at Pixar in the late 1980s that Catmull and Hanrahan developed the project that ultimately won them the Turing Prize: RenderMan, a shading engine. RenderMan was the culmination of a dream of many years to create the first computer generated movie.

At first Hanrahan “didn’t really think it could be done in my lifetime because it was like faking the world,” he said.

To build a fully computer-generated movie, Hanrahan and his team had to create the world from scratch.

“You had to figure out how to simulate water, then hair, then clothing, then finally, pretty much everything in the physical world,” Hanrahan said.

He compares the team’s work to “reliving the Renaissance”, when, “first, Leonardo had to discover perspective, shading and texture”.

Hanrahan’s physics training – which included knowledge in optics, fluids, and other simulations – proved to be of great help. RenderMan took all of these individual simulation techniques and combined them with some advanced shading techniques so that someone could type in a description of a scene, using the RenderMan scene description language that he helped create. , and the program would produce a rendered scene.

In 1995, this system helped fulfill the team’s dream of creating the first computer-generated movie – “Toy Story”. RenderMan, still in use today, was used to create a range of films including “Jurassic Park”, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”, “Finding Nemo and “Cars”. The system has been used in 44 of the last 47 films nominated for an Oscar in the Visual Effects category.

After leaving Pixar, Hanrahan joined Princeton faculty in 1989, wanting to help create the field of computer graphics.

“Kind of crazy that you were going to Lucasfilm to invent a new field… but academics weren’t really doing it,” he said.

After a few years at Princeton, Hanrahan moved to Stanford, where he has worked for 25 years. He supervised 40 doctorates. students, who have created 16 businesses over the years; three of them have grown into billion dollar companies, he told The Daily.

One of those billionaire companies is Tableau, which develops software to make data easier to visualize. Today a company of over 4,000 people, it started as a research project at Stanford. Hanrahan had been working for a few years on a project to bring data to life through easy visualization, but he was struggling. After talking to a colleague in the psychology department who worked on visual cognition, “Boom” he said – it clicked. Hanrahan and two Ph.D. students completed a first prototype shortly thereafter. Hanrahan is most proud of Tableau, of which he is a co-founder and chief scientist, as the company was appointed the best place to work in Seattle for three consecutive years.

Hanrahan is enthusiastic about his “awesome” Stanford students, and the feeling seems mutual.

“Pat, for such an accomplished person everything you have done seems to have come from a natural and deep intellectual curiosity, not a thirst for success,” one student wrote on a class congratulatory board for CS 107E : “Computer Systems from the Ground Up”, which Hanrahan co-taught at the Winter Quarter. “You are a shining example that the desire to learn and understand can take us very far. ”

“We all love Pat, with good reason! His co-teacher CS 107E and lecturer in computer science Julie Zelenski told The Daily. “He is truly extraordinary: not only a world-class researcher, a passionate engineer and a gifted teacher, but one of the nicest humans to walk among us.”

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