The First ‘Realistic’ Computer Animation Was A Drive Down A Highway In 1961. Here’s A Look

Besk Drive

We live in an era of so much ubiquitous computer-generated imagery that it’s hard to remember two things: it was a huge slog to get here, and cars played more of a role in the development of modern CGI than you’d think. Some of these car-computer milestones I was aware of, but just recently I found out about one extremely significant and early one: The first “realistic”– in this context, I think this means something created with a goal of some kind of real-world verisimilitude, as opposed to something abstracted or cartoonish – computer animation was one of the view from a car driving down a road, created in 1961 by a Swedish computer named BESK.

When I say that cars played more of a role in the development of modern CGI than you’d think, I mean that automotive subjects show up a good amount in the early development of computer graphics. For example, the first object to be “scanned” in three dimensions to become a 3D computer model was computer pioneer Ivan Sutherland’s personal 1967 Volkswagen Beetle.

Sutherland Beetle

And, speaking of Volkswagen, I’m pretty certain that the first true first-person driving simulator was developed by Volkswagen in 1972, and was almost certainly the first interactive driving simulator to feature actual computer-generated imagery for the road and other items, like those lollipop-looking trees:

Vw Sim

I– and I think others – believe this simulator sparked the birth of all first-person driving games that we enjoy today. Now, 1972 is extremely early for this sort of thing. 1972 is the same year the extremely simple but revolutionary game Pong was released, and the first microprocessor, the Intel 4004, only came out the year before. Even so, there was still some precedent for this sort of computer-generated imagery, similar to the vector (as in using lines, not pixels) style of display seen on the VW simulator. And I think the animation that’s the whole point of this article may be the source of it all.

The 1961 Swedish animation was a rendering of drive down a planned highway, and was broadcast on Swedish television in November of 1961. Here’s what it looked like:

Now, to our jaded, Forza-series-fed eyes, this doesn’t seem very impressive. But make no mistake: Without these simple, serpentine lines generated by the hulking, humming and likely uncomfortably hot BESK computer at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology, there may not have been a Forza at all.

Besk1

The BESK machine (Binär Elektronisk SekvensKalkylator) was a remarkable machine, first built in 1953, and at first could only be run for about five minutes at a time before breaking down. They soon improved that, and the machine was in active use until 1966, and its useful life included another automotive-ish tie-in, as Saab rented computer time on the machine, though it was more for its fighter aircraft work than its cars.

According to the Swedish Technical Museum, it’s possible that this automotive-related animation was, in fact, the very first computer animation ever:

By this time, BESK had been equipped with a specially designed digital oscilloscope with a resolution of about 1 megapixel. The monitor was called a function printer, the concept of monitor had not yet been born. In front of the oscilloscope, a 35 mm camera with extended magazine was mounted on a custom-made stand. The camera was automatically controlled by the computer, which sent a signal to the camera when a new image was fed onto the oscilloscope.

At Nordic ADB, which calculated masses and launch data on BESK, they had realized that they had all the coordinates to be able to draw perspective from the driver's seat. As an example of this, they brought out how the then newly designed motorway towards Nacka outside Stockholm would look like. With the camera in front of the oscilloscope, they could snap a picture every twenty meters of the virtual road. The result was a 30-second fictitious journey on the virtual highway at a speed of 110 km/h.

The film was transferred to 16 mm format and made in 100 copies. The Technical Museum has the only known surviving copy of the film in its collections. On the box of the film roll it says that it is the first computer-drawn film in the world. There are many indications that this is actually true and that this is the world's first computer animation.

The use of an oscilloscope as an X-Y/vector graphic display was similar to what Volkswagen used eleven years later, and was very similar to what was being used for the graphical display of what was arguably the first computer game ever, Spacewar, also developed in 1961, but at MIT and on a PDP-1 computer.

Besk2 Scope

Considering how much of our lives involve interactions with computer-generated imagery and animations, it’s kind of incredible how little-known things like this crude animation of a Swedish drive on a then-imaginary highway are. But now you know, and perhaps the next time you play a driving game or watch a movie with CGI of a car speeding down a road, you’ll give some quiet appreciation to a long-gone Swedish computer and its team of bold pioneers.

 

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20 Responses

    1. Sweden changed to driving on the correct side in 1967, so the depiction was correct in 1961. Still amazing, I remember dad bringing paperprinted ASCII Art calenders home from work in the 1970 and thought that was way cool ..

  1. Fascinating. Brings back memories of working on a CDC Cyber mainframe in college, and entering my programs on a screen-less remote access teletype. No fancy computer screens for me, no siree! Made it extra fun to correct typos.

    Speaking of old technology, the particular camera mounted on the oscilloscope in that picture is an old Polaroid Land camera that used instant roll film. Very high-tech for 1961, but just like the mainframe itself, woefully outdated today.

  2. I think there’s a subtle detail that you might have missed here. I don’t think you could really class what the BESK was doing as “animation” at all; reading the description of the 35mm camera setup with an understanding of what 1961 computer technology was capable of…

    The BESK would create a snapshot of the highway at a given 20m interval, then toggle the camera to take a photo. Then the BESK would begin processing the image for 20m further down the road. Even with only a single bit [ON/OFF] per pixel, in 1961 a one megapixel digital display still requires a considerable amount of processing. Nothing in the text suggests this was occurring in real time – in fact the last sentence it uses the phrase “computer-drawn” which I think is far more accurate. The “animation” was only achieved when the 35mm stills were transferred to 16mm reels and played back at 24fps or whatever.

    It’s still awesome and impressive. In fact the same trick was done for the nifty computer “animations” seen on the big screen in the NORAD war room more than 20 years after the BESK did it.

    1. That’s how computer animation works even today (for the most part). Rendering takes much longer than real time for each frame. And even in the early days of computer animation, it was printed onto film via laser, and then optically composited into the scene. Hand animation was drawn, painted, photographed, and then finally played back in real time, just like this. So animation is definitely the correct term.

      This is now changing with some of the video game engines able to approach real-time rendering, but traditionally you’d refer to real-time rendering as graphics, vs rendered still images.

  3. Per Wikipedia:

    “BESK contained 2400 “radio tubes” (vacuum tubes) and 400 germanium diodes (so it was partly solid state). The power consumption was 15 kVA.”

    So, yeah. It would have been a bit toasty when running full-tilt.

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