What do a barrel of oil and 3D have in common? They both came from dinosaurs.

Posted: 03.28.06

That's not technically accurate and maybe a little cruel, but it's a great headline and not completely off the mark.

The stuff that we take for granted today, mip-mapping, texture mapping, z-buffers, anti-aliasing, anisotropic filtering, tri-linear filtering, cubic mapping, and on and on, was due largely to developments on the big, old iron of computer graphics, the dinosaurs. Those giant machines made by General Electric, Evans & Sutherland, SGI, Sun, and Cray, and huge mainframes from IBM, DEC, and Control Data, and workstations from Apollo, Adage, Jupiter, and Ramtek, to name a few, were the cauldrons of 3D development. Every one of those companies, with one notable exception, is basically out of business, or out of the (graphics) business. Their remnants are compressed in the earth and turned into the oil that makes the modern graphics market thrive and strive.

Today the industry moves smoothly, for the most part, thanks to those dinosaurs. Moore's Law is firmly entrenched, and the big old dinosaurs have either evolved or died. GE graphics is dead, having been eaten by Lockheed; E&S has moved out of the graphics business and into the heavens; SGI alone hangs on as the sole survivor of big-iron CG. All the workstation companies are gone, Jupiter makes big multi-screen systems, and Sun has become a server supplier. IBM still builds big machines and the fastest in the world, but not for graphics (although graphics do get used). Cray is a reformed distributed processor company now, and we all miss DEC.

And what do all these companies have in common? Two things: they were either stuck in the tar and/or they were unable to adapt to Moore's Law. Getting stuck in tar is when you see your customer base changing, and you can't move because to so would require cutting off one or more of your legs to free yourself of the tar pit, and besides, being in the tar pit is a slow, almost easy death, so the companies (this applies to governments, too) who refuse to see the facts, who keep waiting for a miracle, who expect this fad to go away and things to get back to normal, slowly die. Others are willing to change, but are just not smart enough or fast enough (although every one of them will say "We just didn't have the finances needed," as if they could just buy their way out). They can't really grasp the notion that the thing they worked so hard on for the last two years will cost the consumer only half as much next year and there will new competitive things on the market that will be twice as fast. It's not fair. Evolution seldom, if ever, is, and so they die. The rest evolve as best they can, shrinking in size, finding a niche they can survive in, a smaller pond. And so they change from a pixel-tossing giant to a, ah, well . . . oh, who cares.

But they were giant creative centers, those dinosaurs of the graphics world, and we all owe them a lot. None of us, no one reading this, could or would be doing what we're doing today if it weren't for those old relics.

So the next time you see a great movie, admire the lines of a car, laugh at a commercial, wonder at the design of a modern skyscraper, or play your favorite game, take a second and give a nod to the dinosaurs that made the oil for it to happen; and then run like hell before you get eaten.