Computer graphics, or CG as it is often simply called, is the use of computers to generate images. This is as opposed to the capture of images of real-world or imagined objects which would be, for example, photography or the work of an artist with pencil and paper.
To not see the end product of CG, that being computer-generated imagery (CGI), throughout your day, you would have to be on a deserted island. Images on the screen of the cell phone you probably check first thing on waking are digitally synthesized by a processor. Almost every frame on the TV showing the morning news has CGI in some part. If you commute, then the vehicle which carries you to school or work likely communicates with its operator through multiple computer-managed console panels, displaying information ranging from fuel level to geographical location.
At work, if at all you use a computer, then, of course, there you are sitting right at a fountainhead of computer graphics. And, CGI probably plays an even more important role in your recreational life. Even the most casual video games amusing commuters heading home nowadays have sophisticated interactive 3D graphics. The web on which we spend so many hours a day is increasingly becoming a multimedia smorgasbord synthesizing animation, movie clips, CGI and sound.
When you watch a movie you are seeing a product from an industry, which together with the gaming industry, has the biggest relationship with CG of any other, not only as a consumer of the latest and greatest in technique, but also as promoter, with hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, of cutting-edge research. A little blue elephant which grows into a mighty warrior, an eccentric mouse with a ribald sense of humor, and a massive dinosaur looking so hungrily for food that you would think its species had never really become extinct more than fifty million years ago to contemplate such achievements is to be in awe of the human imagination, as well as the ingenuity of the engineers and programmers who materialize these fantastical conceptions as palpable and believable digital presences.
Then there’s the quiet CG impacting our lives some would say even more profoundly than its more flamboyant manifestations. Doctors and surgeons practice their craft in simulated environments detailed to the tiniest 4 capillaries. Commercial pilots put in hundreds of hours on a flight simulator before entering a real cockpit. (Flight simulators are a sentimental favorite because they were the first killer CG app, drawing attention and investment dollars to the then nascent field in the sixties.)
Automobiles, airplanes and almost any fairly complex manufactured object we see around us are designed, fabricated and even put through regulatory tests as virtual entities which exist entirely as a collection of bits perceptible only as an image on a monitor – gestating often for years before the first physical prototype is ever built. Supercomputers implement extremely complex mathematical models of the weather, but their predictions have to be visualized – again CGI – in order to be meaningful to humans.
Because its business is the creation of pictures, computer graphics has an immediate allure. But, it is a science as well, with intellectual challenges ranging from the routine to about as deep and hard as you please. Think of modeling a drop of water rolling off a leaf. There would be a fair amount of physics and, probably, a differential equation or two to solve on the way to getting just the mechanics of the rolling drop right, not to mention texturing the leaf, creating a translucent (and changing) shape for the drop, and determining illumination.
The field of computer graphics brings particular pleasure to students and practitioners alike because it’s always about making something just like sculpting or painting. Part by part you watch your creation come together, and alive even, if it is animated. Aside from the aesthetic, there are more tangible rewards to be had too. One would be hard pressed to name a sphere of social or scientific or industrial activity where CGI does not have a role. Wherever it is that ultimately you want to be, medicine or fashion, rocket science or banking, weapons development or teaching yoga, sales and marketing or environmental modeling, CG skills not only can make a difference, but also make you a career.