SM: Your previous work experience gave you an actual user’s point of view. You are solving a problem you faced earlier in your life.
CC: Exactly. Even within the world of information visualization, there many different schools of thought, and I learned about many of those in my first job. A very important school of thought to which I subscribe is proper information visualization. Edward Tufte has written landmark best-selling books on how to properly and responsibly convey data as information graphics. There is a community of a couple of million people who have bought his books and gone to his lectures. They believe there is a right way and a wrong way. I was trained in that school of thought because I worked in a highly analytical-intensive environment.
My background let me immediately see the benefit of what Chris [Stolte] and Pat [Hanrahan] had invented. They built the formalism on the information presentation side in a way where it was very easy to plug-in rules to follow those propoer information visualization principles. Most analytical applications have horrible use of color. If you put red on the screen as just another color to light a piece of data, your audience thinks is something important because red is used to highlight. It stresses meaning and attention. You should always try to avoid or mute red in the presentation. Analytical products tend to abuse color by putting too many on the screen at once.
There is a huge body of academic work in the fields of perception and psychology. Stanford has one of the best programs in the world in this, coincidentally. Our inventors are very close with them, and they know the rules of perception design outside of computer science. Chris and Pat were very influenced by this school of thought.
SM: There’s a lot of powerful subtlety in what you are saying.
CC: There is also another important entrepreneurship point that I find extractable from the Polaris Project. Over the years, writers have commented on the fact that sometimes a person coming from outside of the field, or who is very young, is the best person to come up with breakthroughs. People like that are unbiased about other connotations and experience that people very close to the field have.
Pat Hanrahan is a Stanford professor and a really famous mind in the field of computer graphics. He was a very early employee at Pixar. He wrote the software that did the rendering. The fact that he started to look at data and queries as a computer graphics professor is something that I believe is one of the key events that resulted in his and Chris’s coming up with a completely new way of looking at this. They were unburdened by knowing how previous applications work. They were just thinking about the right way to do it or it
SM: I wrote a piece a year ago on cross-domain innovation. I pointed out the same fact: if you put innovation that straddles different domains you get some of the coolest stuff. It’s very hard to do because normally people who spend their entire lives in one domain or another, and they never really come together. If you have been able to do cross-domain innovation, that creates huge barriers to entry and solves problems in unique ways.
CC: I was giving a speech to customers the other day and I used this for my intro line: “They say that the greatest innovations are born from strange bedfellows.” That is your point exactly. In our case it was PhD’s in database optimization, data structures, and data queries, married in the lab with people who had PhD’s in computer graphics. These are groups that even talk to each other anywhere else. They definitely don’t collaborate. That is one of the reasons that we have the IP we have today.
SM: Did you finance the project itself?
CC: When you spin out of Stanford, the first thing you need to do is license the technology. We worked with the technology licensing office. That was step one.
Technically speaking, there is a high road and a low road regarding how people handle Stanford. There have been people over the years who have taken the low road. Despite the fact that the university may have some rights in it, these people go and start something on their own and do not collaborate with Stanford at all. The most famous example is Sun Microsystems. They just left and commercialized. Google is an example of a company that took the high road. Stanford was a very successful shareholder of Google.