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New facility unites computer science faculty

STANFORD -- When computer science Professor Marc Levoy asked for volunteers to "have their heads scanned," Bill Gates was the first to step forward.

"I'll do it," he said, taking his place on a chair atop a small riser in the Computer Graphics Laboratory, where Levoy and his colleagues are developing a 3-D fax machine.

The chairman of Microsoft sat patiently while a laser scanner, emitting a ruby-red beam, orbited his head several times. A short time later, doctoral candidate Brian Curless showed Gates the 3-D image of his head on a computer screen.

The technology being developed in Levoy's lab allows users to quickly scan three-dimensional objects. It mostly will be used to copy lifelike images for computer visualization and animation, but it could be linked to a machine that can produce plastic facsimiles - in effect producing a three-dimensional faxed "printout."

Levoy's work represents the cutting-edge science that has found a new home at Stanford, in the $38.4 million Gates Computer Science Building, which was formally dedicated Tuesday, Jan. 30. Before the dedication, Gates and others took private tours of the building, talked to researchers and had some hands-on fun.

"He seemed really interested in the technology we're working on in this lab," Curless later said of Gates, who paid rapt attention to the demonstrations but said little during the tour.

Accompanied by his wife, Melinda, and a host of university dignitaries including President Gerhard Casper and John Hennessy, professor and chairman of computer science, Gates also visited Professor Patrick Hanrahan's light-field table, which projects computer-generated 3-D images. Bill and Melinda Gates donned LCD (liquid crystal display) goggles to view a computerized "virtual" woman, one example of techniques that could help in teaching anatomy without using real human or animal bodies.

The virtual woman is a life-sized, three-dimensional image of a woman's skeleton, with a muscular heart beating inside the ribcage. Viewers use a wand to move individual bones or other pieces of the image.

"[Bill Gates] got right in there and took out the heart," Hennessy said. "He just loved it."

Gates, who in 1992 donated $6 million as a naming gift, also visited researchers in the Computer Systems Laboratory and took part in a demonstration led by Romeo and Juliet, roboticist Oussama Khatib's semi-autonomous robots.

"Stanford is an incredible place. In particular the computer science work here is really quite amazing," Gates said later.

"I look forward to lots of collaboration between Microsoft and Stanford," he said. "It was fun to see the projects going on here."

Unifying the research community

About 200 guests watched the ceremony live. Hundreds of others tuned in to live television in campus auditoriums and stayed for an academic symposium on the future of computer science technology featuring Gates and Raj Reddy, dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University and an alumnus of Stanford's computer science department.

The Gates building, under construction since August 1994, has been open since mid-December, although finishing touches continued right up until the day of the ceremony. The building provides a unified working space for the first time for one of the nation's leading computer science departments.

"On behalf of the faculty, staff and students, I'd like to say thank you to all the people who have made this possible - from the donors to the architects and construction workers and all the many Stanford people who have contributed to this building," Hennessy said at the dedication. "Our challenge, as residents of this extraordinary new building, is to live up to the promise offered by the unification of a research community that has been split apart almost since the day it started.

"I can already see some signs of the benefits of sharing space," he said. "Informal interactions, faculty talking with faculty whom they rarely would have seen before, students from different labs in heated debate in the hallways. And perhaps the most important indicator - greatly increased attendance at weekly faculty lunches."

The theme of unification was woven through many of the speakers' remarks. Gates himself noted "a bit of irony that, in this age of low-cost communication, where we're going to be able to reach out across the world and share material, it is still very, very important to have people all in one place."

"The serendipity of knowing each other, and brainstorming, really requires a facility like this," Gates said.

Hennessy pointed out that previous non-alumni building donors - such as Margaret Jacks, Cecil H. Green and Mrs. Roscoe Maples - had lived to ripe old ages, and expressed his hope that "there is a direct correlation between the longevity of [donors] and their generosity to Stanford."

Anchor of new quad

Casper, in opening remarks, noted that the formal dedication of the Gates Building "is also the beginning of the completion of a Stanford dream that, in some way, dates back more than 100 years," referring to plans for a science quad that would be located to the west of the main quadrangle.

Known as the Near West quad in the 1980s, the project was stalled by the Loma Prieta earthquake and budget cuts, but was revived in 1994 with a record $77.4 million gift by Silicon Valley pioneers and Stanford alumni David Packard and William Hewlett, both of whom attended the dedication ceremony. Their gift made possible a new Science and Engineering Quad that will be built over the next three years.

"The beginning that we are celebrating today with the dedication of the William Gates Computer Science Building will result in a unified and coherent complex with a logic of its own," Casper said. "It is supported by two of our oldest and most dedicated friends [Hewlett and Packard], by other longstanding friends of Stanford, and by new friends, including Bill Gates, who did not even attend Stanford."

(Gates, who attended Harvard, later got a big laugh when he said that he was a college dropout who "didn't even drop out of the right college.")

James Gibbons, dean of the School of Engineering, thanked Gates and the numerous other donors - individuals, foundations and corporations - who helped make possible the Gates Computer Science Building. They include the family of Erik Jonsson, the co-founder of Texas Instruments; William Hewlett; and the volunteers of the Engineering School Venture Fund.

Other major donors, including those who helped equip the building, are AT&T Foundation; Cisco Systems; Digital Equipment Corp.; Fujitsu; Hewlett-Packard; Intel; Lockheed-Martin; Microsoft; Mitsubishi Electric; NEC; Pacific Gas and Electric; Rockwell; Signal Companies; Silicon Graphics; Southern California Edison; 3M Corp.; Toshiba Corp. and TRW Foundation. Some of their gifts were made to support the Near West campus.

Gibbons, who this summer will step down as dean and take on the position of special counsel to the president and provost for industry relations, said Stanford has high hopes for the role the Gates Building will play in the future of computer science.

"The building is too new yet to have its own special history and patina, but it won't take the students too long to rectify that," Gibbons said. "So here is my prediction: Within the next 18 months something will happen here, and there will be some place, some office, some corner, where people will point and say, 'Yeah, that's where they worked on the fill-in-the-blank in 1996 and 1997.' And you will know it was a big deal. You will read about it.

"It should be a grand future," Gibbons concluded.

As he left the campus after the symposium, Gates was serenaded by the Stanford Band, which chose three tunes for the occasion: "Start Me Up," the Rolling Stones song used in Microsoft's Windows 95 commercials; "She Blinded Me with Science," and "White Punks on Dope."

As Hennessy escorted Gates to his vehicle, the band members - kept across the street by security guards - chanted, "Buy us a shack, Bill," a reference to their quake-damaged "Band Shak" and Gates' generosity.

Gates on Internet growth, 'critical mass'

Earlier in the morning, Gates had given an hourlong talk on the future of the computer industry to a sold-out crowd of 700 in Dinkelspiel Auditorium, many of them members and guests of the Stanford alumni Association, which sponsored the talk.

"The personal computer business is kind of amazing," Gates said. "The volume of machines being sold today is way beyond what anyone would have expected as the business got started.

"The original vision of Microsoft - 'A computer on every desk in every home' - is something we said, but somehow it never struck us what it would mean for it to come true, and yet it is really coming true."

Today, there are about 300 computers for every 1,000 people in the United States, a higher ratio than in any other country in the world. Worldwide sales of computers this year will be up by 22 percent, Gates predicted.

But innovation is not quite as rapid in the computer industry as many people think, Gates said. Many elements - applications, training, development of special solutions - have to come together before a technological breakthrough becomes commonplace, he said.

It took seven to eight years from the first development of the graphical user interface for it to become generally accepted. Similarly, it took about seven years from the time CD-ROM video and audio became available until those capabilities were included on most new computers being sold, he said. But today, Microsoft's CD-ROM encyclopedia outsells print encyclopedias by a ratio of six to one.

The growth of the Internet is incredibly rapid, Gates said. "Somehow, in the last year or tow, all this came to a critical mass."

The computer entrepreneur likened the movement to the Internet to a gold rush, in which there are certain to be some big winners, but also many losers because of the risks involved. He also lamented the fact that public attention has been focused on the question of who is going to make or lose money, rather than on questions of the utility and creativity of what is being developed.



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