Toolsmiths bring computers closer to humans

James D. Foley ’64 is the Stephen Fleming Chair in Telecommunications at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In 1991, he established the Graphics, Visualization and Usability Center (GVU) at Georgia Tech. In 1996, the center was ranked #1 by U.S. News and World Report for graduate computer science work in graphics and user interaction. Foley has served as CEO of Mitsubishi Electric ITA and sits on the advisory board to Lehigh’s computer science and engineering department. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, past chairman of the Computing Research Association and lead author of “Fundamentals of Interactive Computer Graphics.”

Q: You studied electrical engineering at Lehigh in the early 1960s. What attracted you to computer science?

A: First, John Karakash [then department chair of electrical engineering and later dean of engineering at Lehigh] urged me to join the co-op program at Philco. That required work with digital logic. Second, I took a circuit synthesis course in summer school that involved a lot of programming. That got me hooked on computers. I also did a senior lab designing computer components and took a digital logic course.

Q: What was computing like at Lehigh then?

A: A lot of schools did not have computers, but Lehigh had a General Electric computer. I learned how to program on that computer. Without that GE computer, my career would not have taken the direction it has.

Q: You helped establish the fields of computer graphics and computer-human interaction. How did that come about?

A: I have always been picture-oriented. In graduate school at the University of Michigan, I took a course in computer graphics. I first sought to use the computer as a tool to do 3-D engineering drawings and designs. Later, I became interested in making computers easy to use for people who don’t speak “computerese.” My research today is mostly about how people use computers.

Q: What challenges did you face in the early days of computer graphics?

A: Many companies then made computer graphics equipment and their computers were all different. An application developed for one computer had to be rewritten to run on another. There were no standards for graphics programs. One of the first things I worked on was standards. This made computer graphics programs more accessible because you could run them on different equipment.

Q: You coauthored “Fundamentals of Interactive Computer Graphics” in 1982. The book has been translated into 10 languages and is now in its third edition. Tell us about that.

A: The book explored the underpinnings of computer graphics to write programs that interactively create drawings on the screen. It also addressed how to make realistic 3-D images and how to animate them, which is what computer-animated movies are all about.

Q: Your book also covered human-computer interaction (HCI).

A: One thing that distinguished our book from others and made it successful was its treatment of HCI. Many people believe the book helped HCI become more accepted as a computer science. Some people considered HCI a “soft” discipline. But computers are tools and computer scientists are toolsmiths. How can you build tools for people if you don’t know how they think about the tools and how they’re going to apply them to solving problems?

Q: What qualities make a good researcher?

A: I’ve always tried to dig into a new area that hasn’t been explored. It’s more fun than incrementally improving something someone else did. Perseverance is another important characteristic. Not everything you try is going to work. Another critical attribute is intellectual honesty. You have to be optimistic that you will ultimately get an answer, but you must also question if you’re going in the right direction.

Q: Which research project of yours was particularly important?

A: The most significant work I’ve done is in developing software tools for HCI. Rather than just writing code to implement a user interface, you describe the operations a program can perform to a design program that creates a user interface design targeted to different devices such as cell phones or PCs. Because the user interface can be generated automatically, this lets you repurpose a code to run on different platforms without having to write a new interface.

I developed this in the mid-90s but it didn’t get used then. Today, however, we have many devices with different form factors. There’s more interest in moving an application quickly to a new form factor without having to completely redo the user interface. So my concept has been picked up in the past five years.

Q: Has the widespread use of computers changed the way people learn?

A: I have the impression that the attention span of students is shorter because they are accustomed to being in front of a screen. I’ve been doing controlled experiments using prerecorded lectures shown to students on computer versus in-class lectures. The students learn better when they watch lectures at home on their computer. That’s because they are able to control the pace. They can stop and restart, and even jump around. It’s very much like browsing the Web. You can’t do that with a lecture or even a book.

Q: Are the students coming out of high school prepared for your degree program at Georgia Tech?

A: In general, no. They have not been exposed to computational thinking, in which you solve a problem by first breaking it into smaller subpieces. This is changing, but too slowly. We’re still too focused on teaching programming in high school rather than on problem-solving methods and how they relate to the problems that need to be solved.

Q: What has been your best experience in teaching?

A: One of my greatest achievements as an educator was receiving an award from the graduate students at Georgia Tech as the teacher who most makes students want to be a professor. What could be more satisfying?

Q: You’ve worked with industry and you’ve worked for a Japanese company. How did those experiences help you diversify your career and broaden your thinking?

A: The experience in industry helped me see what is required to take an idea from the research lab to a real product. Mitsubishi provided a difference in four dimensions — time zone, distance, language and culture. I discovered the common bond that held people together was their interest in solving a problem.

Q: Your career has spanned most of the modern computer age. What do you think your most important contribution has been?

A: I am proudest of starting the Graphics, Visualization and Usability Center (GVU) at Georgia Tech. It was a critical factor in establishing HCI as a credible, recognized part of computer science.

Q: Which advances in computers have had the biggest impact on the world?

A: Three important things have brought us where we are today. The microprocessor made computers inexpensive. The graphical user interface made computing accessible to nearly everyone. The Internet allowed computers to become a communication vehicle and means for information access and sharing. These things have transformed our personal lives, education, business and government.

Q: When you began your career, did you or anyone else have any idea these things would happen?

A: No. I’ve never heard anyone claim to have seen the whole picture.