An engineer calls up a computer model simulating a spaceflight. At home, a TV viewer watches dazzling special effects on everything from rock videos to news reports on the economy. The term for this is ``computer graphics.'' It is a medium that combines elements of the arts and the sciences and tries to make raw data and dry facts colorful and interesting.
Although, like the computer industry in general, the graphics sector hit a slump this year, it has fared much better overall. A key reason: cheaper and more sophisticated personal computers.
Before, graphics needed mainframe computers with large memories to handle the number crunching required to represent an image. But more and more graphics packages are being found on personal computers such as Apple's Macintosh, AT&T's personal computer, and IBM's PC AT.
Graphics are the main component in computer-aided design (CAD), which is used in architecture, mapping, business graphics, the arts, and mechanical and electrical drafting. Industry consultant Carl Machover in White Plains, N.Y., predicts the CAD/CAM (CAM stands for computer-aided manufacturing) market will grow 30 to 35 percent a year for the next five years. The main players include Computervision, Intergraph, Control Data, Calma, Applicon, and IBM.
Developments in high-end PCs -- like IBM's AT -- are making significant inroads into drafting and design in architecture, engineering, and construction. Eric Teicholz, president of Graphic Systems in Cambridge, Mass., says the biggest users are industries in which 95 percent of the companies already own personal computers. There are more than 20,000 CAD/CAM installations using personal computers in the United States, and some 200 a month are being added.
Applied to mapping, computer graphics can help create network data bases and serve a large number of people who need access to such resources. PCs perform drafting functions and thematic mapping (used to represent the geographic distribution of specific topics), while mainframe and powerful minicomputers use maps to describe public utilities and construction projects.
Computer graphics are proving to be a powerful visual presentation tool in research, marketing, planning, data processing, and financial management:
``Smart systems'' help the user conceive a presentation by providing options for color combinations and formating.
``Decision support systems'' allow executives to have more control and easy access to data by pushing a button. These systems offer instant graphic management by including libraries of graphics automatically updated when changes are made in the underlying data.
In printing and publishing, computer graphics compose pages and provide the basics for nonimpact printers such as Apple's Laserwriter. A recent Frost & Sullivan market-research study sees computer sales in this industry growing from $1.8 billion in 1982 to $4 billion by next year. At the forefront are companies such as Interleaf, based in Cambridge, Mass.
Publishers like Time Inc. have installed pre-press graphic systems that automate color separations, color proofing, and page makeup, integrating graphics and text. McGraw-Hill and others are developing data bases that allow graphic storage and retrieval in videodisc.
The most recent step in computer graphics is CIM (computer integrated manufacturing), a concept that allows the computer to become the center of all factory activities -- planning, design, process, and manufacturing. Julius Dorfman of International Technology Marketing in Wellesley, Mass., expects the worldwide market for CIM to grow fourfold by 1990, exceeding $50 billion.