‘Pretty soon, there won’t be many of us left thanks to computers," says screen actor Ron Wall. A familiar stage face for many Central Jersey theater goers, Wall has for years supplemented his income as an extra in movies and on television. He was a face in the crowd, but increasingly those crowds we see running in the background as the monster stamps his way down the street or the lovers stroll through a crowded park are not humans at all, but rather are the amazingly clever creations of computer graphic artists.
Animated cartoons, crowd scenes, backgrounds, weather, and even the actions of the sacred stars themselves are falling to the magic of digitalization. The very latest and most astounding examples of this avant visual art are examined in the 26th annual computer graphics film show on Thursday, October 20, at 7:30 p.m. at the Sarnoff Center in Princeton. There is no charge. Call 732-921-5754 or visit www.movingimage.org for more information. The sponsoring Princeton chapter of the ACM-/IEEE is also putting together a pre-meeting dinner at Ruby Tuesdays on Route 1 South at 6 p.m.
The film selections to be viewed include commercials, industrial films, and animated cartoons, along with segments of full length documentaries and feature films – even a few Oscar winners. Computer graphic pioneer Jeff Posdamer hosts the show and lends commentary to these best of the best.
Those old enough to remember Donkey Kong and punch cards can appreciate just how far Posdamer and his art have come over less than four decades. Posdamer earned a B.S. in the fledgling field of computer science in l966 at Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute. By l968 he had gained a Ph.D. from Syracuse University. After short stints with IBM and St. Louis’ Washington University, he settled at Bell Labs, and then at Sarnoff. He now pursues a host of independent projects
and also works for Virginia-based CACI on computer graphics solutions.
"Back in the 1960s computer graphics guys really didn’t get any respect," says Posdamer, paraphrasing the old Dangerfield joke. "This was pre-Donkey Kong, and the whole idea of using something as revolutionary as a computer to make
flickering images just seemed playful and frivolous." In those early days, Posdamer recalls, the first annual meeting of computer graphic specialists involved, as he puts it, a gathering of about 10 geeks for whom the highlight was a chicken dinner.
Today, 32 years later, Posdamer and his fellow computer graphic experts have not only gained respect, but their product is craved by a ravenous image-hungry public. That 10-person convention has now blossomed to SIGGRAPH – the Special
Interest Group on Computer Graphics, a trade group that hosts an annual 30,000-person event, luring Hollywood, cyber-luminaries, major companies, start-ups, and hordes of the technology elite. Filmmakers like George Lucas are selected to be keynote speakers. At the last convention the year’s best films were selected from student to major feature categories. It is a sampling of these that Posdamer is showing and discussing at the October 20 meeting.
"Currently, the cycle is only five years," says Posdamer. Within that short span today’s cutting edge computer graphic advances will pass from the laboratory to feature film to shrink-wrapped software packages that everyone is buying and sliding into their PCs. The reasons for this compressed cycle of graphic invention are many:
Moore’s Law. Gordon Moore, founder of the Intel Corporation, predicted in l965 that computer technology and capacity would double every 18 months. Over time this estimate has remained surprisingly accurate. As we approach an era of Palm
Pilots more powerful than a room full of machines were just a few years ago, Posdamer believes that Moore’s law still applies. Graphics will definitely be a growing part of this ever-advancing technology.
Know-how is one reason for the graphics explosion, and Posdamer says that another is cost. Displaying images on screen is no longer an exotic costly process. The enormous amounts of memory required to produce pictures is now very cheap and very easy to add onto any hardware.
Posdamer likens our era to the end of the bronze age. Back when bronze was the metal of choice, warfare was restricted to an elite few who could afford the weapons. Then came iron, much cheaper and more easily made, thus allowing everybody to go running around slaying each other.
Newest and latest. As the public becomes more demanding, cash flows into the creative process. This creates an endless spiral of improvement. Posdamer compares the portrayals in the movie "Toy Story" with the latest "Shrek" animated feature. The relative refinements are striking.
To digitally create these images, a host of actors are paraded before the artist, their aspects digitalized. The artist then studies them, noting, for example, how an individual’s face changes as he simply walks along a path. Gestures and eyebrow nuances are studied and added to match each speech. Look at the total coordination of the Shrek figure, suggests Posdamer. It all merges into an incredibly natural figure.
Additionally, backgrounds have taken great leaps in realism. The process of taking several individual types of tree and amplifying them into a forest has noticeably improved in film clips just this last year. Portrayals of fire, both
realistic and surrealistic, are advancements that will be shown at the October 20 event.
The public gobbles up this new form of eye candy and has come to expect better and better quality. Driven by audience expectation of excellence, film investors have reversed their old cry and are now telling computer artists, "don’t make it Tuesday, make it perfect."
Application proliferation. "Pictures have always been used to augment words," says Posdamer. Monks drew painstakingly detailed pictures to illustrate Bible stories before there were printing presses. Computer visualization has just begun to take on the role of clarifier, pulling us out of the data swamp. On television’s nightly weather news, one short moving image makes several satellite digital geographic shots and thousands of bits of meteorologic data comprehensible. Everything is accurately depicted on one understandable map. Presented as number lists and charts, one individual simply could not make sense of all this data.
As business sprawls across the globe, it also becomes mired in numbers. Even a small corporation with a few separate locations and a few running accounts with several suppliers and clients may find the old spreadsheet beyond comprehension. Cash and product flow maps, very similar to the TV weather maps, are now crunching these numbers into a communicable form.
Whether it be the pixels of her smile or an understandable visual accounting system, computerized graphics are being integrated into every aspect of our lives. As a beast historically both predator and prey, humans have always been alert to color and movement.
We will demand more of each from our machines. Posdamer fears no technology lag. "This generation is different," he says. "Like kids of the l950s connected with cars, these new kids don’t need manuals. They feel computers in their fingers."
SBIR Grants: Advice From a Winner: Tom Merrill
‘If I’ve learned one thing about our government," says Tom Merrill, founder of East Windsor’s FocalCool, a biotech working on technology to cool blood to achieve improved oxygen supply, "it’s that they are a lot slower to give money out than they are to take it in." Merrill speaks as one of the competitive few who have recently won grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through the federal government’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.
Last year various government agencies awarded over $1.5 billion to more than 3,000 small businesses for research and development. The New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology talks about companies can reel in these grants during its "How to Win an SBIR Grant" seminar on Friday, October 21, at 8:30 a.m. at the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Enterprise Development Center in Newark. Cost: $30. Call 908-754-3652. Speakers include Kay Etzler of the NIH and several grant recipients.
Merrill holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Bucknell (Class of 1987), a master’s degree from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a Ph.D. from Penn State University. He began his career by developing a heat pump for Carrier.
He then applied the oxygen exchange technology at the heart of the heat pump to human health at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, where he helped develop an artificial lung. Then it was on to Massachusetts firm Aviomed, where he helped to develop an artificial heart. Merrill then returned to Monmouth Junction to work with Wyeth Research on arterial valves and stents. Along the way, he discovered a method of getting more oxygen-rich blood to flow into body tissue. This technology is the basis of his company, FocalCool.
Be it brain or muscle, every cell of the body needs oxygen delivered by a continuous flow of blood. Cut off this supply and the tissue dies. Typically when an individual’s arteries become constricted, the solution is simply to thin the blood. "The problem with this," explains Merrill, "is that the thinner and more diluted the blood, the less oxygen it can hold."
Merrill approached the problem from an engineering standpoint. Cooler liquid holds more suspended gas. The solution to making thinned blood effective involved cooling the blood from 37 degrees to 33 degrees, so it could get more oxygen to the tissue. To achieve this, Merrill has devised a small, chilling catheter that cools the blood flowing over it by employing the body’s natural systems.
The concept is simple, the technology amazingly complex, and the implantation extremely delicate. To meet his challenge, FocalCool was formed less than a year ago with help of an SBIR grant.
Turning the tap. In l982 the federal government saw that as much socially valuable innovation was coming from small businesses as from the major research firms. To help new and small technology companies bring these inventions to fruition, Congress launched the SBIR program. Grant money is now offered by the departments of Defense, Agriculture, Health & Human Services, Energy, and several others.
Grants are awarded in two phases for businesses of under 500 employees. Phase 1 finances a feasibility study, which typically spans six months. The published limit is $100,000. Phase II covers the development and thorough testing of a
viable prototype. Grants for this two-year phase can range up to $750,000.
Recently an additional funding arm was added. The Small Business Technology Transfer program aids small businesses in developing specific technology, which may then be sold to a larger non-profit institution. It entails the same eligibility and funding limits, and operates on the same two-phase time line. Full details and applications can be obtained by visiting www.sba.gov/sbir.com.
Funding ideas. One of the true beauties of SBIR is that, unlike most venture capitalists, it will fund a good idea. "I’m really a one man band here," says Merrill. "SBIR people realized that added additional risk, but they were willing to handle it."
The SBIR must have been more than willing. It awarded FocalCool $170,000 for its Phase I feasibility study, $70,000 over the published limit. "The trick is to develop a rapport with the individuals of SBIR," says Merrill. "They expect a whole series of phone inquiries. They want to take your questions. They want you to talk things through with them all the way through to the peer review."
The applicant’s goal is to find a fit between his product and mission with some department or division. Frequent communication is the key to achieving this.
Count on support. The plan need not be foolproof by the end of Phase I. Merrill, currently well into Phase II, is still testing his device on animals, and refining it through clinical studies. This is expected. While the blood is
substantially cooler, it remains just a few frustrating fractions above the hoped-for 33 degrees. Yet all the while, SBIR has proved supportive.
For this phase, FocalCool again was granted funding above the published $750,000 limit. In the later stages, Merrill insists that the key lies in the writing. When selling your idea to the peer review committee, and then applying for the second phase grant, write simply and read each sentence aloud. Scientific jargon seldom impresses anyone, even scientists. Instead write for an informed laity. "If the average reader of the New York Times can’t understand it, better rewrite it," says Merrill.
Once the clinical tests are over and a viable prototype is ready to be produced, SBIR steps out of the picture. At this point, inventors typically knock on the venture capitalist’s door to see things through to a commercialized product.
Provide substantial experimental data. Etzler, of the National Institute of Health, explains that an applicant need not have a specific tool or research topic laid out as long as he is "responsive to the goals and mission of the NIH."
Attaining an SBIR grant from the NIH is, nevertheless, far from a slam dunk. Etzler says that one reason for a turn-down is a lack of experimental detail. A specific goal is fine, but without a highly detailed trail guide pointing the way, it may not be an expedition the NIH wants to fund.
Conversely, some applicants go overboard, proposing unrealistic amounts of research within the very strict SBIR time limits. The trick is to provide the reviewers with an exhaustive research plan that appears doable, but not padded. Don’t even think about going over the 15-page limitation.
The process of winning an SBIR grant is time consuming, but winning a grant not only gets the small company launched, but also provides the ideal resume punch for pulling in venture capital down the road.
Yearning to Be Oprah: Marlene Waldock
Marlene Waldock wants to inspire women – to explore possibilities, to live their dreams, to transform their lives. Waldock is living her dream, she says, and other women can do it too.
Waldock, a motivational speaker, owner of 1st Impression Communications in Verona, and the host of a weekly television feature "New Jersey Business" on News 12 NJ, sponsors a seminar, "Because We are Women," on Saturday, October 22, at 8 a.m. at the Mansion at Farleigh Dickinson University in Madison. Cost: $99, including breakfast and a workbook. Register at www.BecauseWeAreWomen.com or by calling 973-498-0046.
Waldock’s inspiration for her "Because We Are Women" seminar is Oprah Winfrey. "I went to see her a few years ago when she did a seminar in Philadelphia and I looked at her on the stage and I thought, ‘I want that to be me.’"
There will be presentations and panel discussions on a variety of topics, from the inspirational, "Moving Forward Through Inspiration and Actions," to the practical, "Moving Forward on Solid Ground." Speakers include Ethne Swartz of the Rothman Institute, Alyce Hackett, a financial planner and coach; Susan Ungaro, editor-in-chief of Family Circle magazine, and Caren Franzini, CEO of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.
Waldock’s seminar looks at what factors tend to hold women back, including self-destructive thought patterns and low self-esteem.
"We celebrate others’ success, but how often do we celebrate our own?" says Waldock. She wants women to learn to celebrate not just the "big successes in life, but all those little ones that take place every day."
Throughout history, she adds, women have done "amazing things" that are often overlooked. "For centuries we ruled as queens, led armies into battle, and toppled empires. We fought for religious freedom, were immortalized for our
philosophies, and were goddesses of mythology. We have won Nobel prizes, flown planes, cured diseases, and are responsible for the birth of every man on earth."
With the success of "Because We are Women" Waldock has accomplished one dream, but she isn’t stopping there. She wants to take her workshops to a national audience.
"’Because we are Women’ is my dream and possibility, to produce a forum to inspire, support, and offer women the ability to explore many opportunities," says Waldock. "My goal is that these events expand awareness, create new friends, offer support, and outline the steps to get closer women closer to their dream."
Smart Hiring: David Levine
How do you fire an employee who is not working out? More importantly, how do you keep from hiring the wrong employee in the first place? Hiring and firing are some of the most important issues a business owner or manager faces today, says David Levine, a business coach with Action International in New Brunswick.
Action International and Lum, Danzis, Drasco and Positan, LLC, present a free seminar, "Protect Your Business from Human Resources Landmines." Originally scheduled for Wednesday, September 7, it has been postponed until Tuesday, October 25 at 8 a.m. in the Hyatt Regency in New Brunswick. Guest speakers include Wayne Positan, president elect of the New Jersey State Bar Association. Call 732-792-1311 for reservations.
As a business coach with Action International, Levine says he sees his role as "coaching business owners to improve their business through guidance, support, and encouragement. Just like an athletic coach will make you focus on the game." Owners of smaller businesses may "find it hard enough to keep pace with all the changes and innovations going on in today’s modern world," says Levine, "let alone find the time to devote to sales, marketing, systems, planning and team management, and then to run their businesses as well."
Levine has 25 years of experience in a variety of business areas, he says, including "marketing, sales, finance, process analysis, and systemization" in a variety of industries including "retail, services, high tech, business to consumer, and business to business." A graduate of New York University, where he earned both a B.S. and an MBA, he is also an instructor at Rutgers University.
What are some of the human resources issues a small business owner faces?
Fear of firing an employee is one of the biggest challenges for many employers and managers, says Levine. Many times an employer many want to fire an employee, but is afraid that he or she will sue the company. Often the owner will tolerate poor performance or bad behavior because of that fear. Other times, he simply may not be able to "get up the guts" to fire someone.
"It is difficult to fire someone, especially if you like the person." He recalls an experience of his own where he postponed firing an employee. "When I finally got around to doing she said, ‘Thank you, I’ve been hoping to get fired for weeks.’"
The right way to fire an employee. "Effective communication is one of the keys to handling the situation properly," says Levine. "New Jersey is a ‘hire at will’ state. That means you don’t have to have a specific reason for firing someone. However, you do have to have consistent policies and you need to document."
"If there is a lawsuit, he adds, "it falls on the employer to prove that he did not discriminate against the fired employee," he says. "Document everything."
"Documenting means recording the praise as well as the blame," he adds. "Every employee has good points as well as bad points." Don’t forget to hold, and record, annual reviews. "Saying, ‘Well, I gave him a pay raise’ is not a review," says Levine. With that raise an employer should spend time going over the employee’s work for the past year.
Maintain an employee manual and procedures. Often small business owners don’t have written employee manuals or documented grievance procedures. This is a mistake that can expose the company both legally and financially, says Levine. It is important that a new employee read and sign the manual so that he cannot claim that he did not know proper procedures.
Mis-hires and how to avoid them. "When a person sits down to hire a new employee, he thinks first about the cost of the salary," says Levine. While salary may look like the largest portion of the cost to the employer, when everything relating to hiring that new employee is totaled, it can add up to as much as two to three times the actual salary.
Benefits such as insurance are an obvious cost, says Levine, but there are others. The cost of the employee search including advertising or other fees, possible relocation benefits, the time the employer spends in interviewing candidates, as well as the time and money spent in training the new employee all add up.
"If the fit isn’t right, it can be very costly," says Levine. "The best solution is the make sure you hire the right person the first time. "
Checking out credentials and background as well as actually calling references are important.
Finally, says Levine, if the "fit" doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. "Fire quickly, hire slowly."