Pixar Image Computer

Pixar Image Computer

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The Pixar Image Computer was a graphics designing computer originally developed by the Computer Division of Lucasfilm
Lucasfilm Limited is an American film production company founded by George Lucas in 1971, based in San Francisco, California. Lucas is the company's current chairman and CEO, and Micheline Chau is the president and COO....

, later renamed Pixar
Pixar Animation Studios, pronounced , is an American computer animation film studio based in Emeryville, California. The studio has earned 26 Academy Awards, seven Golden Globes, and three Grammy Awards, among many other awards and acknowledgments. Its films have made over $6.3 billion worldwide...

 after being purchased by Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs
Steven Paul Jobs was an American businessman and inventor widely recognized as a charismatic pioneer of the personal computer revolution. He was co-founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of Apple Inc...

 on February 3, 1986. The name Pixar, which was coined by Alvy Ray Smith
Alvy Ray Smith
Alvy Ray Smith III is an American engineer and noted pioneer in computer graphics. He is a co-founder of the animation studio Pixar.- Life and career :...

, Loren Carpenter
Loren Carpenter
Loren C. Carpenter is a computer graphics researcher and developer. He is co-founder and chief scientist of Pixar Animation Studios. He is the co-inventor of the Reyes rendering algorithm and is one of the authors of the PhotoRealistic RenderMan software which implements Reyes and which renders...

 and Rodney Stock, is a made-up Spanish word meaning "to make pictures". The name is similar to pixel
In digital imaging, a pixel, or pel, is a single point in a raster image, or the smallest addressable screen element in a display device; it is the smallest unit of picture that can be represented or controlled....

, so has connotations of the digital computation nature in making the images. When George Lucas recruited people from NYIT
New York Institute of Technology
New York Institute of Technology is a private, non-sectarian, co-educational research university in New York City. NYIT has five schools and two colleges, all with a strong emphasis on technology and applied scientific research...

 in 1979 to start the Computer Division, the group was set to develop digital optical printing, digital audio, digital non-linear editing and computer graphics. Where computer graphics were concerned, the quality was just not good enough due to technological limitations at the time. The team then decided to solve the problem by starting a hardware project, building what they would call the Pixar Image Computer, a machine with more computational power that was able to produce images with higher resolution.

About three months after the acquisition by Steve Jobs, the computer became commercially available for the first time, and was aimed at commercial and scientific high-end visualization
Visualization (graphic)
Visualization is any technique for creating images, diagrams, or animations to communicate a message. Visualization through visual imagery has been an effective way to communicate both abstract and concrete ideas since the dawn of man...

 markets, such as medicine
Medicine is the science and art of healing. It encompasses a variety of health care practices evolved to maintain and restore health by the prevention and treatment of illness....

, geophysics and meteorology. The machine sold for $135,000, but also required a $35,000 workstation from Sun Microsystems
Sun Microsystems
Sun Microsystems, Inc. was a company that sold :computers, computer components, :computer software, and :information technology services. Sun was founded on February 24, 1982...

 or Silicon Graphics
Silicon Graphics
Silicon Graphics, Inc. was a manufacturer of high-performance computing solutions, including computer hardware and software, founded in 1981 by Jim Clark...

. The original machine was well ahead of its time and generated a lot of single sales, for labs and research. However, the system did not sell in quantity. In 1987, Pixar redesigned the machine to create the P-II second generation machine which sold for $30,000.

In an attempt to gain a foothold in the medical market, Pixar donated ten machines to leading hospitals and sent marketing people to doctors' conventions. However, this had little effect on sales, despite the machine's ability to perform CAT scans and show perfect images of the human body. Pixar did get a contract with the manufacturer of CAT Scanners, which sold 30 machines. The terms were: Buy a million dollar scanner, and get a $30,000 3D visualization system free. However, doctors were not trained to look at 3D, and could be sued unless they looked at the individual slices, per their training. By 1988 Pixar had only sold 120 Pixar Image Computers.

In 1988, Pixar began the development of the PII-9, a nine slot version of the low cost P-II. This machine was coupled with the world's first RAID
RAID is a storage technology that combines multiple disk drive components into a logical unit...

, a high performance bus, a hardware image decompression card, 4 processors (called Chaps or channel processors), very large memory cards (VME sized card full of memory), high resolutions video cards with 10-bit DACs
Digital-to-analog converter
In electronics, a digital-to-analog converter is a device that converts a digital code to an analog signal . An analog-to-digital converter performs the reverse operation...

 which were programmable for a variety of frame rates and resolutions, and finally an overlay board which ran NeWS
NeWS was a windowing system developed by Sun Microsystems in the mid 1980s. Originally known as "SunDew", its primary authors were James Gosling and David S. H. Rosenthal...

, and the 9 slot chassis. A full-up system was quite expensive, as the 3 GiB RAID was $300,000 alone. At this time in history most file systems could only address 2 GiB of disk. This system was aimed at high-end government imaging applications which were done by dedicated systems produced by the aerospace industry which cost a million dollars a seat. The PII-9 and the associated software became the prototype of the next generation of commercial "low cost" workstations.

In 1990, the Pixar was defining the state-of-the-art in commercial image processing, however the government decided that the per-seat cost was still too high for mass deployment, and to wait for the next generation systems to achieve cost reductions. This decision was the catalyst for Pixar to lay off its hardware engineers and sell the imaging business. There were no high volume buyers in any industry. Fewer than 300 Pixar Image Computers were ever sold.

The Pixar Image computer business was sold to Vicom in 1990 for $2,000,000. Vicom filed for Chapter 11 within a year.

Many of the lessons learned from the Pixar Image Computer made it into the Low Cost Workstation (LCWS) and Commercial Analyst Workstation (CAWS) program guidelines in the early and mid '90s. The government mass deployment that drove the PII-9 development occurred in the late 1990s, in a program called Integrated Exploitation Capability (IEC).

Walt Disney Feature Animation
Walt Disney Feature Animation
Walt Disney Animation Studios is an American animation studio headquartered in Burbank, California. The studio, founded in 1923 as the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio by brothers Walt and Roy Disney, is the oldest subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company...

, whose parent company
The Walt Disney Company
The Walt Disney Company is the largest media conglomerate in the world in terms of revenue. Founded on October 16, 1923, by Walt and Roy Disney as the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, Walt Disney Productions established itself as a leader in the American animation industry before diversifying into...

 later purchased Pixar in 2006, used dozens of the Pixar Image Computers for CAPS
Computer Animation Production System
The Computer Animation Production System is a proprietary collection of software programs, scanning camera systems, servers, networked computer workstations, and custom desks developed by The Walt Disney Company together with Pixar in the late-1980s...

 and was using them in production up through Pocahontas
Pocahontas (1995 film)
Pocahontas is the 33rd animated feature in the Walt Disney Animated Classics series. It was produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation and was originally released to selected theaters on June 16, 1995 by Walt Disney Pictures...

 in 1995.


The P-II could have two Channel Processors, or Chaps. Each Chap is a 4-way parallel (RGBA
RGBA color space
RGBA stands for Red Green Blue Alpha. While it is sometimes described as a color space, it is actually simply a use of the RGB color model, with extra information. The color is RGB, and may belong to any RGB color space, but an integral alpha value as invented by Catmull and Smith between 1971 and...

) image computer. The chassis could hold 4 cards. Another model, the PII-9, could hold 9 cards (4 Chaps, 2 video processors, 2 Off Screen Memory (OSM) cards, and an Overlay Board for NeWS, the PostScript
PostScript is a dynamically typed concatenative programming language created by John Warnock and Charles Geschke in 1982. It is best known for its use as a page description language in the electronic and desktop publishing areas. Adobe PostScript 3 is also the worldwide printing and imaging...

-based windowing system
Windowing system
A windowing system is a component of a graphical user interface , and more specifically of a desktop environment, which supports the implementation of window managers, and provides basic support for graphics hardware, pointing devices such as mice, and keyboards...

. The extensions added were to control the image pipeline for roaming, image comparison, and stereo image viewing. The PII-9 was the imaging engine for a UNIX
Unix is a multitasking, multi-user computer operating system originally developed in 1969 by a group of AT&T employees at Bell Labs, including Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, Brian Kernighan, Douglas McIlroy, and Joe Ossanna...

 host. This was a SIMD
Single instruction, multiple data , is a class of parallel computers in Flynn's taxonomy. It describes computers with multiple processing elements that perform the same operation on multiple data simultaneously...

 architecture, which was good for imagery and video applications. It processed four image channels in parallel, one for red, one for green, one for blue, and one for the alpha channel (whose inventors have connections to Pixar). It processed imagery in 12 bits per color channel (or 48 bits per pixel) and could output with 10 bit accuracy.
The system could communicate image data externally over an 80M per second "Yapbus" or a 2M per second multibus to other hosts, data sources or disks and had a performance measured equivalent to 200 VUPS, or 200 times the speed of a VAX
VAX was an instruction set architecture developed by Digital Equipment Corporation in the mid-1970s. A 32-bit complex instruction set computer ISA, it was designed to extend or replace DEC's various Programmed Data Processor ISAs...


External links

  • Pixar Image Computer at Flickr
    Flickr is an image hosting and video hosting website, web services suite, and online community that was created by Ludicorp in 2004 and acquired by Yahoo! in 2005. In addition to being a popular website for users to share and embed personal photographs, the service is widely used by bloggers to...