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Computer course taught by "master of illusion"

Many computer science and engineering students dream of creating the Next Big Thing, a killer application that changes the way we use computers.

This spring, 35 select UW-Madison computer science and electrical & computer engineering students are learning the ropes from a guy who invented one of Today's Big Things: A software program that helps movie-makers bend the laws of nature.

Madisonian Perry Kivolowitz co-invented "Elastic Reality" a decade ago, and the image-morphing software has been embraced by Hollywood special-effects wizards. More than 200 Hollywood films and countless television shows and commercials have used Elastic Reality. In 1997, the software earned him an Academy Award in scientific and technical achievement.

Kivolowitch teaches 'Elastic Reality'

Perry Kivolowitz (left), Computer Science, working in a lab with one of his computer graphics class students Nick Rasmussen. (large image)

Elastic Reality's cool factor is simple: It blends together two distinct scenes in one seamless transition, making unlikely effects look believable. It's currently at work in the movie "Titanic," in the scenes that segue from 1912 to the present - characters age 80 years before our very eyes.

"This course has been tremendously valuable to me already," Kivolowitz says. "The best way to learn something is to teach it. These students are very sharp and they ask tough questions."

Although an introductory course, one-third of its 35 students are graduate students. Kivolowitz made the class very hands-on, where students master the tools well enough to create their own programs. The lessons explore the full range of the computer graphics palette, such as coloring, lighting, texturing and special effects.

The course complements another computer graphics course taught by mechanical engineering Professor John J. Uicker, Jr. by focusing more on the latest techniques in creating and manipulating quality images.

Professor James R. Goodman, chair of the computer science department and a faculty member of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, says innovative talents like Kivolowitz are very hard for computer science programs to attract, since every school wants to carve their niche in the field.

"With computer graphics, we're literally looking at the world changing out from under us," Goodman says. "We see this as an opportunity, not just for Perry but for the department. We've got big plans for him, big hopes."

Computer graphics as a science is experiencing a golden era, Kivolowitz says. "If you get out of bed in the morning, you are going to see computer-generated images at some point in the day. They're on print ads, on billboards, on TV commercials, everywhere.

"It is absolutely stunning how far the science has come in a very short time, but there's much further to go," he adds. "I don't think the science will stop progressing until computer images are indistinguishable from real life."