WHAT IS POSSIBLE TODAY?

The things that can be done with graphics-oriented home computers cover so many possibilities that it would take a separate book to describe them. Therefore we will touch on the most obvious uses, with a reminder that we are just scratching the surface of a deep and complex subject.

Education

Unquestionably the most noticeable effects of low-cost graphics computers will be in education. To understand this, consider that a major factor that makes a scientist great is the ability to visualize a complex idea. For example, some of the world's most honored mathematicians had an incredible ability to see intricate structures in their “mind's eye.”. What does this have to do with graphics computers?

Consider using a graphics computer to help teach a calculus class. The instructor would set up the graphics program so that students would see a mathematical function (curve) on the screen of the computer. Next the program would approximate the curve with straight-line segments, then start to make the segments smaller and smaller until they reach the limit and perfectly match the original curve. The students would “see” the process of differentiation. This graphics technique can be applied to integration, statistics, algebra, mathematical logic, and so on.

Visualizing abstract concepts in physics can be radically enhanced with the graphics-oriented home computer. For example, the orbits of planets can be traced out so students can watch the subtle perturbations of the orbit. The flight of a rocket or the flight of a bird can be followed. Electromagnetic fields, and for that matter any kind of field, can be instantly drawn out on the computer. Color can be used to accentuate certain features of the field, or to give it a three-dimensional nature. In fact, if green and violet are used to draw two slightly different views of the same object and then green and violet glasses are used to view the computer screen, a true stereoscopic (three-dimensional) image can be obtained!

In electronic technology and engineering classes the graphics computer can be used painlessly to draw and redraw circuit diagrams as we saw in our introductory example. The inner workings of a pn transistor junction could be dramatically illustrated with flowing electrons, a barrier field, floating holes, impurities, and so on. The flow of electricity could be watched, as could the effects of resistance, voltage, and power.

Ecological interactions can be animated on the graphics computer, and students can study the effects of nature, artificially speeded up or slowed down by the computer program. Modeling the gait and movements of animals is another possible use for the graphics computer. The list is endless.

Industry

Any industrial process that involves a flow of materials can take advantage of computer graphics. For example, in chemical manufacturing the computer can draw a real-time schematiclike picture of the process as it actually occurs. Colored pipes show the flow of materials, temperatures are indicated in color, as well as the position of valves (open or closed), the level of liquids in holding tanks, and so on.

Detroit will soon use computer graphics to simulate all the instruments in an automobile dashboard. Instead of several different gauges, there will be a single liquid-crystal flat-panel display in front of the driver (like the kind used on the new digital watches), and the gauges will be displayed and updated on the flat-panel “screen.”

In the electronics industry the graphics-oriented computer is used for generating printed-circuit board patterns, complex masks for IC chips, or displaying logic waveforms as a digital scope does.

Any industrial enterprise that involves assembly is likely to be enhanced with the graphics computer. For example, a complex plumbing installation can be vastly simplified and easily controlled via a graphics computer. A drawing program could be used with pipe sections, valves, etc., in the menu area.

Computer-aided design can be used not only to help visualize a process but it can get involved in the process itself. In designing a package for a product, for example, the computer can instantly compute the total area of the package and then calculate the cost of the entire module based on material costs. The volume of box, regardless of how irregular, can also be computed to aid in heat flow determinations. A decision that normally would take hours can be made by the designer in just a few seconds of computer time.

Art

The graphics computer opens up a whole new world for the artist, especially in the interaction between the artist and the medium itself. The computer with graphics offers the artist a set of tools unlike any before. For example, there are “joystick” devices that look like airplane control sticks and allow you to move a crosshair anywhere on the screen for inputting drawings and pictures.

Or how about using a “mouse” to input drawings to the computer? The “mouse” is a slang word for a device that looks like a tiny doughnut except the doughnut hole has a small crosshair in it. The mouse is moved along the outline of a drawing and the drawing appears on the screen of the computer.

There are also light pens that the artist can use to draw with. A light pen is used to input information directly through the display screen of the computer. A cord connects the pen to the computer, and circuits in the computer figure out where you have placed the light pen on the screen.

Then there are the incredible special effects that the computer can do to any drawing you input to the screen. The computer can create beautiful mandala patterns that resemble patterns found in nature.

The laws of perspective can be intentionally altered with the graphics computer, allowing custom rules of nature to be defined by the artist. A flatland world can be created or a world with strange alternative dimensions. The choices are limitless.

Fun and Games

If you haven't had an opportunity to play any of the new computer games that exist on the market today then you are surely missing out on the most convincing, palmsweating, and breathtaking evidence of what graphics and home computers are all about. It's not that computer games are anything new; computer science students have been flunking exams for years due to fighting Klingon battle cruisers late into the night on the main computer of the college. What is special about computer games of today is two things: (1) their incredible ability to simulate real-time events, such as the sounds of explosions, a hovering ship, two cars crashing, etc. and (2) their ability to analyze and adjust to the player's performance level. No nonelectronic board game has been made that can rival these abilities.

Perhaps the most popular computer game is “Star Trek.” Today on the home computer program market you can purchase at least 20 versions of this popular game based on the tv series of the same name. The most interesting of these games have full-blown animating graphics so you view space through the computer screen, as if the screen were the window of your spacecraft. Strange space objects fly by, spacedust clouds the screen then, suddenly, warning buzzers go off as a battle cruiser belonging to the evil Klingon Empire approaches. You grab your joystick and swerve the ship to the left, right in the sights of your outboard photo torpedoes. One press on the trigger control and the screen fills with bright-colored balls of light darting toward the maneuvering cruiser. There is a momentary stillness as the enemy ship seems to begin to rotate in space, then suddenly you're blinded as the screen flashes brilliant colors and in big letters the words ZAP..ZAP..ZAP appear. As the game ends, someone pushes you aside so he or she can get into try to beat your score. This is a good example of an action computer game with real-time special effects.

Other such games with real-time effects like this are the infamous PONG™ or TANK video games,* like the kind seen in amusement parks, beer halls, bowling alleys, etc. The PONG™ games available for home computers feature balls that break the rules of physics, twisting and expanding in midflight or falling like lead.

One of the best features of many of the computer games is the adjustable skill level that the player can set. This means someone just starting out can type in that he or she in a novice, while an experienced player can type in the rank of sergeant or general.

Most of the traditional games have a computer counterpart. For example, chess, checkers, and backgammon have all been computerized. One commercial version of chess draws the men on the screen just as they look printed in the newspaper, moves them automatically from one square to another, and allows you to set in the IQ level of the machine to mimic an intelligence level of from 1 to 8.

There are sports games like BASEBALL that let you swing a baseball bat via a joystick control when the computer pitches you a ball. Outfielders scramble about, trying to catch your whopper, while you sweep across the bases towards home plate.

The educational computer games are on the way to altering the entire nature of how our children learn. Today there are games like US MAP, where you must identify states and capitals. The computer draws the outline of the state and gives geographical drawing hints in full color (that is, if you need them). There are interesting and fun math drill programs that display a math problem on the screen, such as 25 × 0.5, and you must enter your best estimate of the answer. The computer then throws a dart towards a bullseye target, striking it with an accuracy proportional to that of your estimate. Such drill programs perfect your child's math skills because the math becomes just a side effect of the game.

* PONG is a tradename of Atari, Inc.

Finally we have “know yourself” entertainments like LIFE EXPECTANCY, which charts how long you will live given a specific lifestyle; or we have PSYCHOTHERAPY, which will analyze your feelings and behavior to figure out how mentally stable you are!

Again, the list of uses for the graphics-oriented computer in entertainment is endless and limited only by the imagination.