Innovation Idol – Ray Tracing

September 25, 2009

This past week, Sybase hosted an internal competition called “Innovation Idol” (it’s supposed to be a spin-off of “American Idol”, but more techie). The description of the event reads:

Innovation Idol is a Sybase-sponsored, 3-hour event where Waterloo employees and co-ops showcase their ideas and innovations in an atmosphere of fun and friendly competition. Innovation Idol aims to foster a spirit of innovation and original thinking at Sybase, and to identify and promote promising innovations that could improve our workplace, our products, and the ways we work.

I was shocked by how much effort the folks here at Sybase put into the event, even the setup of the “stage” was really cool. When I walked into the cafeteria, I expected some chairs and maybe a projector for a slide show. But, to my surprise, they had closed all the blinds and turned off all the lights. There were these large speakers with a sound system borrowed from one of the staff who is a singer. Ambiance, anyone? A couple spotlights (read lamps) lit the judges (yes, there were judges =P) and the contestants. Also, three projectors provided video feeds of the contestant and the judges, and one more for the contestant’s presentation. Finally, they even played soundtracks at the beginning and end to enhance the game show experience.

However, it wasn’t just smoke and mirrors. The presenters had some really innovative and bright ideas. It would take too long to list and describe all the ideas, but the one intrigued me the most (and ended up winning) was given by Eric, titled “Using Ray Tracing to Create Rich Presentations and Marketing Materials”. You can read up more on ray tracing, but on a high level, it is an advanced technique used to render photorealistic computer graphics. Eric talked about how the architecture and infrastructure of computer systems can be very complicated and often shapes and lines don’t fully convey the overall interaction between individual components. With ray tracing, you can represent a complicated network setup of servers and software with a photo-realistic image. For example, a database store can be a water tank, water pipes can be used to show the connections between components, the water pipes can then have valves that turn on and off depending on the flow of data, a red fence can surround a server that has a firewall, etc. All this data is put into code and a very realistic photo is returned. This kind of graphical representation is not only well-pleasing to the eye, but also portrays a complicated computer set up in an easy to understand image.

From a marketing perspective, the benefits are obvious. These generated images are much nicer than a standard flow chart. Since our eyes are drawn to things that look nice, it is possible to create rich presentations and marketing materials that will grab a customer’s attention. Also, using more common objects to represent things like databases, communication, data flow and firewalls, gives customers a better understand complex architectures. It may be true that developers don’t need “pretty pictures”. However, I believe that the ray tracing technique would simplify the learning curve associated with understanding larger systems.

A picture speaks a thousand words. If we can visualize abstract pieces of software like databases and firewalls with concrete objects like water tanks, pipes and fences, it would help us understand a system setup better and thereby allow us to solve our problems more efficiently.

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