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COMPUTING SCIENCE

Pixels or Perish

The art of scientific illustration will have to adapt to the new age of online publishing

Brian Hayes

Virtual Paper

In 1990 the only way I could run a PostScript program was to send it to a laser printer or a typesetting machine; I had no way to see output on the computer screen. (The debugging cycle consumed reams of paper.) Today we have PostScript interpreters for the screen, but the language remains closely tied to its ink-on-paper origins and is useless for any kind of active illustration, where objects move or respond to events. In PostScript, all art is still life.

A later variant called Display PostScript was meant to bring the same elegant and precise drawing model to interactive graphics, but it never caught on. What did gain traction was PDF, or Portable Document Format, which takes a step in the opposite direction, away from programmatic graphics. PDF is essentially “flattened” PostScript; it’s what’s left when you remove all the procedures and loops in a program, replacing them with sequences of simple drawing commands.

From the outset, PDF aspired to be virtual paper—to re-create on the computer screen the experience of reading a printed document. It succeeds brilliantly. Layout and typography are carefully preserved; you get everything but paper cuts and inky fingers. This is a laudable achievement, but I also see it as a sad waste of resources. When I read a PDF on my laptop, I’m using a powerful and versatile computing engine to imitate a mere sheet of paper. The machine could do much more.

One remedy for this situation would be to re-engineer PDFs to make fuller use of the available computing capacity. Many of the necessary facilities, such as scripting languages, are already present in the PDF specification; they’re just not used much. That could change. In the meantime, though, lively ideas for active graphics and scientific visualization are coming from another direction—from the world of HTML, the language of the Web.








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