Featured Alumnus

J. Turner Whitted
Class of 1978



Microsoft Corporation
Senior Researcher, Hardware Devices and Graphics

J. Turner Whitted won't take credit for it, but he really should be listed in the lineage of Woody, Buzz, Shrek and the Matrix's Neo, as well as a lot of other computer generated characters and effects in both movies and computer games. Graduating with a PhD degree in Electrical Engineering in 1978, Dr. Whitted was the first to apply the concept of ray-tracing to global illumination in computer graphics. He earned his BSE and MS degrees in electrical engineering from Duke University.

Dr. Whitted was an adjunct professor of computer science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 1983 to 2001. He is cofounder and former director of Numerical Design Limited. Prior to that he was a member of the technical staff in Bell Labs' computer systems research laboratory.

He is a private pilot and an avid sailor.

National Academy of Engineering
According to their website, "Election to the National Academy of Engineering is among the highest professional distinctions accorded an engineer. Academy membership honors those who have made 'important contributions to engineering theory and practice, including significant contributions to the literature of engineering theory and practice,' and those who have demonstrated accomplishment in 'the pioneering of new fields of engineering, making major advancements in traditional fields of engineering, or developing/implementing innovative approaches to engineering education.' " Dr. Whitted is recognized by the Academy "for contributions to computer graphics, notably recursive ray-tracing."

Dr. J. Turner Whitted was elected to the National Academy of Engineers in April 2003.

Ray-Tracing In Brief In ray tracing, a ray of light is traced in a backwards direction. That is, we start from the eye or camera and trace the ray through a pixel in the image plane into the scene and determine what it hits. The pixel is then set to the color values returned by the ray.

Interview

Are you a native North Carolinian?

Yes. I was born in Durham and grew up in Winston-Salem.

What factors did you consider in coming to NC State for your PhD?

Several. One is obviously the fact that there is an engineering school here, which is not true of my alternative, Chapel Hill. The other big factor was out of my control. NC State was willing to take a gamble on me. I wasn't a very good undergraduate student. I was very fortunate that they accepted me. Hopefully, I made up for some of that poor undergraduate record.

You had lunch with Ben O'Neal, right? He's a guy that can bring most anybody along I think. [laughter] What influenced your decision to become an engineer?

As a kid, all I ever wanted to do was fly airplanes, so why would I want to do anything in engineering? My father was a Western Electric electrical engineer so there was a part of me that decided to be anything else but an electrical engineer, standard rebelliousness. Sometime in junior high I just got interested in electronics and radio and things like that. I read an engineering book that made it sound fascinating and all of a sudden I decided that was what I wanted to do.

The radio interest, did you put together something like a Heath kit?

No, I couldn't afford Heath kits. You actually had to pay money for those but our basement had the biggest supply of components you'll ever see. It was just a matter of sneaking down there when my father wasn't looking and building things.

How did you become interested in computer graphics research?

The easy answer is "I don't remember." Computer Graphics research was a new field and it wasn't something you could become interested in. If you became interested, you were part of something that was very new. When I was at Duke for my master's degree, there was a course where I had to actually plot the results and I thought that the plotter results were a whole lot more fun than a whole column of numbers. After that, no matter what I was doing -- I was looking at the stability of control systems at the time -- plotting the response ended up being the most fun. I just forgot about control systems and got into plotting. I guess you'd call that "scientific visualization" today but in those days it was just "plotting the results" and it grew from there.

Coming to NC State was an interesting transition. When I came into the department around 1975 we had wonderful programs in signal processing and computer graphics and there was a tight relationship between them. My real reason for coming into the signal-processing program was to pursue image processing. Somewhere in the middle of that pursuit, I discovered that some functions of image processing used the same mathematics as computer graphics and computer aided design and I switched interests over to the computer graphics side and it just grew from there.

You probably remember when the Computing Center was in the basement of Nelson Hall, don't you?

We never used the Computing Center. We had laboratory computers though we couldn't call them computers in those days because of purchasing problems. We called them "test equipment" and we did everything in a self-contained fashion. I don't think I ever went into a computer center after I was an undergraduate.

The paper you presented in 1980 inspired many programmers to begin to create art and over the years whole entertainment industries have grown out of the science of your original algorithm. What artistic derivative of your work do you enjoy most?

Oh gosh, I'm trying to put as much distance between that paper and myself as I can. I can never escape that paper. Artistic derivation, I think that's a bit of an overstatement. That paper was a little bit out of the lunatic fringe. It had some nice effects, but those effects are achieved more economically in the real world than they were as presented in that paper. I don't go to the movies and look at the special effects and try to identify anything related to that, certainly. For one thing, that kind of kills the enjoyment and for another thing the special effects are so good that you wouldn't notice it anymore. The most enjoyment I get out of it is seeing people duplicate it for their homework assignments. I really get a kick out of that, just seeing the students go through the same thing and discover the same thing is wonderful.

You'll be pleased to know then that there are millions of hits on Google of your algorithm in students' homework papers. [laughter] In 1983, you left Bell Labs and with Dr. Robert Whitton founded Numerical Design Limited. Based on your experience with NDL, what advice would you give to young entrepreneurial engineers?

Is there anything that I learned in starting a company that would be useful to somebody else starting a company? There are no two startups that are alike. No two situations that are the same. No two economic climates that are the same. 1983 was an interesting time because the mini-computer era was coming to a close, the workstation era was starting up, and the PC era hadn't quite taken hold. The transition to that new technology was the impetus for many new businesses. We saw that the workstation software business was going to be crowded and jumped immediately to the PC business. Doing what we were doing on PCs was considered insane, but we didn't have any choice. We had to escape the crowd. Turned out to be the best decision we made to put our software on PCs. So is there a lesson in that? Well, the general lesson is to be flexible and not so hung up on your original notions that you can't shift gears and change over to something that's going to be more successful.

The move from the entrepreneur culture of Numerical Design Limited to the corporate culture of Microsoft must have been an enormous change for you. What were the most striking differences between the two endeavors?

They're not that different. Microsoft, as large as it is and as successful as it is, still is an entrepreneurial company and it had better stay that way if it wants to remain in business. The biggest difference in my case was jumping out of the commercial world back into the research world. When I went to Microsoft, I joined Microsoft Research as a chance to jump back into the type of work I had done before starting NDL. I kind of missed it. It wasn't so much a change from the entrepreneurial world back into the commercial world. To me it was a change from the industrial research world that I had left in 1983 into the industrial research world that existed in 1997--and they are not the same. In many ways I am much happier in the new industrial research world where relevance is a big issue. It's something we have to pay a lot of attention to. We want to make sure that our work is strategic and that it has a future. But it's very like coming home in a way. I like being back in research.

In addition to its role as advisor to the federal government, the National Academy of Engineering also conducts independent studies to examine important topics in engineering and technology. As one of its newest members, do you have any particular topics you'd like to see the NAE address?

Turns out that my normal answer would be "Don't ask me, I'm the new guy" and that's true. However, you don't have to have been a member of the National Academy to be involved in their activities and over the years I've had the good fortune to work with the National Academy on a couple of different projects. If Congress needs advice on where to put research money, if somebody in administration wants answers to questions of research strategy, the National Academy is a good unbiased independent organization that draws not only from their members but also the research community as a whole. When I've gone there to participate in a workshop or a study, it's been an absolutely fabulous experience. I'll give you an example from many years ago. There was a real question as to what would be the most effective way to fund medical imaging because at the time, it was a brand new topic. It was a fantastic experience to get in there in a highly interdisciplinary area of study and add my two cents worth to people from lots of different disciplines--radiologists and computer scientists and engineers and any number of people who were trying to work together to answer that question. Now did we actually plan that? Did that [topic] come about because we thought it was time? I'm not sure, somebody thought it was time to answer that question. At least from my experience, it's a demand driven type of activity.

Max Weber said, "[no science] is worthy of man [...] unless he can pursue it with passionate devotion." What research currently deserves your "passionate devotion"?

I'm glad somebody said that because I used to tell my students that all the time. Don't even think about pursuing a topic you're not passionate about. You can't apply enough energy if you don't have the passion, and research is hard. If it weren't hard, more people would do it. You just can't go out and be assigned research. You have to believe in it. You have to be willing to push it and think about it 24 hours a day. One of the unfortunate effects of old age is that your efforts tend to get diluted a little bit and you are asked to put your fingers into multiple pies. There's good and bad to that. The pies that I'm involved in right now are mostly centered around the interface hardware and graphics since I still have one foot in each camp. I'm very much trying to push state-of-the-art in how we interact visually with computers. That's an awfully broad scene but it involves things like display technology, display architecture, graphics algorithms, and graphics and image representation. It's not a narrow topic. There's an awful lot that we have to look at. But even after 30 years in that area, that is still the area that gets me going.

It's been almost 25 years since you earned your PhD and the concept of engineers and engineering in society has certainly changed. How do you think engineers will be viewed in another 25 years?

There's only one honest answer to that and that is I don't know. And to be honest, I can't even go back 25 years and remember how engineers were viewed when I first started out and I'm having trouble remembering what it was like when my father started out as an engineer. There are two issues here. One is how the technology changed. We all know that. We can just track it. The question is, "How did we change as practitioners?", and to a certain extent, we haven't. We're problem solvers, always have been and always will be. We have better tools and can tackle bigger problems but there is this exponential growth and the complexity of the problems presented. It's not like we're working any easier or any harder. We're still running hard as we can just to keep up. Are we different as people? I don't think so. I see a lot of my father in myself. I don't think that's changed.

Over the last decade we've seen Microsoft's emphasis on a graphical user interface greatly increase. What new technology can we expect from graphics research being done now?

What you're asking is what will the average person experience? We have the PC revolution is sometimes interchangeably called the desktop revolution. It's off the desktop that really makes the difference and we see that now. We have PDAs, we have cell phones, we have any number of things that we carry with us away from our desktop. So the untethering is a huge change, in some ways good and in some ways bad. The fact that we can't escape communication; [it] is up to you to decide whether that's good or bad. You can always turn your cell phone off. The fact is that the convenience of being untethered is overwhelming and that's why it's something we can't back away from. So the question of visual interaction in an untethered world is a very different question than how do you interact with a desktop computer and we're trying to ask those questions. I have [so many] papers and talks on this that I can go on forever. [laughter]

And it's not simply a case of looking down into your handheld device and having your desktop reproduced. That's not the experience we're talking about. Let's say, [touching the wall] I just turned a wallpaper into a display (which is technically feasible). So if I no longer have to sit in front of a desktop monitor and I can just talk to my walls and look at the environment and get all the additional feedback I need from that, how's that different? There's a lot of difference. You're focused; in this case you're focused on some smaller area but now you're getting a larger area to focus on. The fact that it's farther away gives you a different perspective and reaction. We don't know that much about the whole range of untethered interaction and to me that's the thing that is most important for us to discover and exploit. It's the whole reason that the hardware devices research group exists at Microsoft. We put an awful lot of effort into the display sides of that. It's wide open. It's an exciting area to work in.

Part of the mission of the College of Engineering at NC State is not only to provide students with a sound engineering education but also to give them the opportunity to become well-rounded individuals. What activities that you pursue outside of research do you think qualify a person as well rounded?

That's an excellent question to which there are thousands of answers. A long time ago we thought that the notion of a liberal education was so important. We wanted to make sure everybody knew the same thing. I still believe that. I think there are a lot of things to be said about a liberal education but there's also a lot to be said about experiences, things that you've done, places that you've been. You know, this sounds really mundane, but I like to read, I like to travel, I like hobbies, you name it. It's all a part of education. It's not the same as going into the lab and hiding and shoving the rest of the world away. Engineers have a reputation for doing that; I think it's an unwarranted reputation. But we need to be conscious of the fact that engineers live in the real world; engineers have to interact with the real world. The biggest impediment we have to interaction with the real world is the fact that we have this nice precise language that the rest of the world doesn't quite adhere to. That's very frustrating for both parties, the engineer and the rest of the world. I wish there was a way to overcome that. I'm not sure there is.