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The Father of Computer Graphics receives the Frontiers of Knowledge Award

The BBVA Foundation has recognized the computer engineer Ivan Sutherland with the Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the category of Information and Communication Technologies. Over the course of his 60-year career, the American computer scientist has led the transition from text-based to graphical computer displays. He pioneered the use of graphical icons and virtual reality, and anyone who uses a computer or smartphone today benefits from the output of his research.

In an era when computers were as large as entire rooms and punch cards were used for programming, this man had the foresight to identify the need for a simpler, more intuitive mode of human-machine communication. As early as 1963 when he presented his doctoral thesis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Sutherland demonstrated that computer graphics provided an instinctive way to interact with computers.

Ivan Sutherland (United States, 1938) is considered to be the primogenitor or today's graphical interfaces, from the window system designed by Apple to application icons. In the words of the jury for the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, Sutherland "has paired a deep knowledge of technology with an understanding of human behavior to transform computer interaction.”

He created Sketchpad, a program that represented an important milestone for computer engineering and established the foundations for a powerful and intuitive approach to human-machine interaction by using drawing and manipulating icons and shape, instead of using a keyboard to enter commands. Sketchpad used a stylus to draw directly on a screen. Objects could be transformed; images could be enlarged or reduced in size.

Ivan Sutherland, BBVA Foudation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the category of Information and Communication Technologies - BBVA Foundation

"Being able to draw on a computer screen was totally unusual and unexpected, and awakened a lot of people to the possibility of using computer graphics" said the winner of  the BBVA Foundation award after learning of the jury's decision. Sutherland swears that at the time he was unaware of the eventual implications of his work: "I had no idea what it would lead to. I did it because it was interesting to do. I did what I did because each step was interesting and technically possible, and clearly gave us access to information in a new way that would obviously be useful, even if how it would be used was not clear.”

The sword of Damocles

In 1968 Sutherland developed the first virtual reality headset to demonstrate the potential of devices that could track the user's gaze. It was nicknamed “The sword of Damocles” because of how heavy it was. At the time, the American explained that he was trying to “surround the user with three-dimensional information” – an image that “must change in exactly the way that the image of a real object would” when the person looking at it moves his or her head.

'The sword of Damocles' would become the antecedent to current virtual reality systems like HoloLens, Rift, and Vive. Again, Sutherland was unable to imagine the implications of his research and when asked today he answers, “If you want to know the future, you have to ask the people who make it not the people who started it.  I have no idea what other people will do.”

Sutherland’s work has had a profound impact both in academia and in the business world. He himself holds more than 60 patents, and some of his disciples have gone on to found such companies such as Pixar, Adobe, Silicon Graphics, and Netscape. "I am pleased to have known those people and made some small contribution to their education," he says.  The prizewinner only allows himself one certainty about the future, and it's that the future depends entirely on the curiosity of young people: "Young people are wonderful. They don’t know what they can’t do, so they go ahead and do it.”