Ivan Sutherland Wins Frontiers of Knowledge Award
Written by Sue Gee   
Thursday, 21 February 2019

This year's BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Information and Communication Technologies has gone to Ivan Sutherland for "pioneering the move from text-based to graphical computer displays."



Inaugurated in 2008 by the major multinational Spanish banking group, BBVA, Frontiers of Knowledge is an international award programme which recognizes significant contributions in the areas of scientific research and cultural creation., with ICT being one of three categories.

Previous recipients of the ICT award, have included Donald Knuth and Marvin Minsky and for the eleventh edition  computer engineer Ivan Sutherland, widely regarded as the father of computer graphics, was selected by the award jury.

The BBVA's announcement reads:

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.

The jury is quoted as saying that Sutherland:

"paired a deep knowledge of technology with an understanding of human behavior to transform computer interaction.”

Two of Sutherland's groundbreaking inventions, both of which were well ahead of their time were singled out by the BBVA. The first was the Sketchpad program which was first outlined in Sutherland's doctoral thesis which he presented at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1963 under the supervision of Claude Shannon, the "father" of information theory.

The BBVA jury noted that Sketchpad:

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.

There's some footage of Sketchpad in this BBVA video, in Spanish, which combines archive footage with Sutherland talking to camera, in English but with Spanish voice-over that tends to drown it out, about his life's work:


Sutherland says of Sketchpad:

“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”.

He also disclosed 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 was given access to a computer. I wanted to make drawings on that computer, because I liked drawings, and I liked to make them neat, and the computer delivered that. 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 virtual reality headset, nicknamed the "Sword of Damocles” because of how heavy it was, is also referred to in the video. Sutherland built this with his students at Harvard University in 1968 - decades ahead of today's VR  systems like HoloLens, Rift, and Vive. At the time his intention was to “surround the user with three-dimensional information” with 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. However he had no inkling what the implications of his research were, and are, going to be. He states:

“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.”

His only certainty about the future, as expressed to the BBVA, is that it 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.”

ivansutherland bbva





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Last Updated ( Thursday, 21 February 2019 )