Portland State’s Ivan Sutherland, “father of computer graphics,” receives prestigious BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award
Author: By Shaun McGillis
Posted: February 22, 2019

What does it take to be an innovator?

According to Ivan Sutherland, a visiting scientist in Portland State University’s Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science, it takes courage to pursue new ideas even if they might be wrong, to share ideas at the risk of criticism and to never stop moving forward.

In a prolific career spanning 60 years, Sutherland changed the ways we interact with computers, create art and explore the virtual side of reality. At 80, he and his Dutch wife and research partner—Marly Roncken, a research professor in the MCECS Computer Science department— are working hard to explore new circuits and systems that could change the future of computing.

In recognition of his lifetime of many achievements, Sutherland was recently selected by the BBVA Foundation for the Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Information and Communications Technologies. This prestigious international accolade—given by the Spain-based foundation—recognizes and rewards contributions of singular impact in science, art and the humanities.

The awards committee chose Sutherland because he was able to pair “a deep knowledge of technology with an understanding of human behavior to transform computer interaction.” Because of that, “everybody using a computer or smartphone benefits from his vision and contributions.”

Sutherland, a brilliant but modest researcher, has never sought attention for his groundbreaking discoveries. That’s why he was surprised to get a dawn phone call from a former colleague, Foundation committee member Ron Ho, Facebook’s engineering director, who called from Spain to give him the good news.

“I didn’t know anything about the award until Ron called me,” said Sutherland. “Although this award is in honor of past work, it recognizes and encourages innovation.”

Southerland and Roncken plan to ask the BBVA Foundation to send the €400,000 prize money to the PSU Foundation in support of research at their lab, PSU’s Asynchronous Research Center.

This a great honor for Professor Sutherland, and a point of pride for PSU,” PSU President Rahmat Shoureshi said, “We are proud of having him as a visiting faculty scholar and delighted that he and Marly made PSU their academic home.”

Sutherland said: “Marly and I plan to continue research at PSU where we enjoy the space, colleagues, students and intellectual environment vital to our research. Association with PSU will extend my lifespan by keeping me in touch with bright young minds and fresh ideas.”

Known as the “father of computer graphics,” Sutherland is a transformative researcher, educator and inventor whose contributions have revolutionized the way we interact with technology. Whether it’s a computer or smartphone, ATM or digital kiosk, virtual or augmented reality, graphics guide the user experience. Trace the innovations that merged graphics and digital technology back to their inception in the early 1960s, and you’ll find Sutherland’s visionary work.

Sutherland received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1963. At MIT, he worked with Claude Shannon, who named the “bit” as part of creating information theory. Sutherland’s Ph.D. dissertation focused on the development of a revolutionary computer graphics program he named Sketchpad.

Sketchpad enabled users to draw on the monitor of what was then the most powerful supercomputer in the world. The program lets users draw lines and arcs with a pen-like tool to create shapes and figures, performing the basic editing functions many of us now take for granted. The innovations Sutherland developed at MIT heralded a major shift in computing, from a text-based interface to the graphical displays ubiquitous in today’s technology.

“Being able to draw on a computer screen was totally unusual and unexpected,” Sutherland said. “Sketchpad awakened a lot of people to the possibility of using computer graphics.”

Sutherland’s status as a visionary inventor was again affirmed in the late 1960s when, as a tenured associate professor at Harvard University, he and a team of students developed a “head-mounted display” to create the three-dimensional illusion surrounding a user that would later be known as virtual reality. The team built special computing equipment to make images on their display change to track a user’s changing viewpoint.

Sutherland went on to work at some of the most respected institutions of higher education in the U.S. and abroad and was a part of numerous companies that left their mark on the technologies of today. He holds more than 70 patents, has authored numerous papers, books and other publications. He is a member of both the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences. He is the recipient of an ACM Turing Award and a Kyoto Prize.

Sutherland and Roncken came to Portland State in 2009 and launched the Asynchronous Research Center within MCECS. Research in their center focuses on the development and testing of a new type of “self-timed” computer circuit. Unlike most common computers, whose fixed speed is limited by a rhythmic internal “clock,” their asynchronous, self-timed, or clock-less circuits each run at its own best pace.

Self-timing, like self-paced learning, offers faster and more efficient circuits that radiate far less electromagnetic interference than clocked circuits. These are advances that will, Roncken and Sutherland explained, help to usher in the coming era of distributed computing.

“Most computers in the world march to the beat of their own internal clock,” Sutherland said. “Designers imagine that at each clock beat all parts act simultaneously.”

In fact, the speed of light makes simultaneous action impossible, even over the small size of a modern chip. Nothing, according to Albert Einstein, even information can travel faster than light, he said.

“Modern chips are so large and modern logic so fast that the speed of light has become a major design problem,” Sutherland said. “Our objective in the Asynchronous Research Center is to learn how to design and test circuits that avoid the mental crutch of assuming simultaneous actions.”

In June, Sutherland and Roncken will travel to Madrid, Spain where the BBVA Foundation will present Sutherland with the award. In addition to the prize money, the award also comes with a diploma and commemorative artwork in recognition of Sutherland’s courageous career as a researcher, innovator and educator.

Photo captions:

  • Ivan Sutherland and his wife and research partner - Marly Roncken, a research professor in the MCECS Computer Science department - examine an image of a circuit. (top photo)
  • A 1962 photo of Ivan Southerland running the Sketchpad at the console of the TX-2 computer. (middle photo)
  • Ivan Sutherland is pointing to an image of his invention, the Sketchpad, an early predecessor of modern graphical user interfaces. (bottom photo)