That Spatial Feeling | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

That Spatial Feeling 

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Greg Dawe was photographed by Wes Pope in April 2000, as part of the CITY 2000 documentary project. I interviewed him about six months later. He's shown standing in the CAVE--a computer-generated "automatic virtual environment"--at UIC's Electronic Visualization Lab, where he works as a design engineer.

I'm Greg Dawe, a Chicago native. I'm the hardware guy in a software lab. This is basically a computer software lab, that's where its money comes from, but sometimes you have to build the hardware too. So I'm the nuts-and-bolts guy. When we have to build the hardware too, it falls in my lap.

I'm the oldest son of the youngest son of an Irish immigrant. I'm the first in my family to go to university and get a degree. My father and my grandfather both worked for the city of Chicago.

My great-grandfather lived on what is now the border between Northern and southern Ireland. He drove a coach for one of the British royalty, who owned the estate immediately south. So it was not exactly a great place to grow up politically. One day in the tavern, a brawl broke out, and soldiers ran in there to quell it, and a pistol ended up sliding across the floor, and my grandfather, who was eight or nine years old, grabbed the pistol and ran. A couple of days later he was walking around on the stone wall that surrounded the duke's property and he pulled out the pistol and shot a rabbit. Well, poaching on the king's property was a capital crime. And possession and discharge of a firearm by a southern Irishman was a capital crime. He was like a dead man either way. So they smuggled him out of the country overnight and put him on a steamship. He spent five or six years as a kid shoveling coal on a steamship. When he got to New York Harbor he jumped ship and got a job on the railroad shoveling coal in the locomotives. When he got to Chicago he liked it, so he jumped locomotive. They'd just finished building the first city hall, and he walked in with his coal shovel and they put him to work. He was probably in his early 20s by then. And he retired from that job.

As a stoker on the boiler crew he was low man on the totem pole--he worked for an engineer. And five of his sons--four of my uncles and my father--became engineers for the city. My father was an operating engineer. Basically he was licensed to run a high-pressure steam boiler. I grew up with a chip on my shoulder because he made it very clear that he was not going to go out of his way to get me a job with the city. It seemed like an entitlement to me. We lived in the neighborhood called Cottage Grove Heights, on the far south side. It was a place where most young men expected to go to work right out of high school. The majority of employed adults there worked for the steel mills. It was walking distance to the mills, and that was the heyday of the southeast-side steel-mill city. But by the time I left high school they were starting to wind down their tonnage.

The first serious job I had after high school was as a clerk for a receiving dock that was unloading Volkswagen Beetles and South African steel. The steel I think was coming across the South Pacific, through the Panama Canal, up the Gulf Stream into Canada, and down the Saint Lawrence Seaway, across the Great Lakes to Chicago. It was basically being sent as ballast on the boats, because they were actually taking flour and corn out of Chicago as relief to the rest of the world. They figured as long as they were sending a boat to Chicago they'd stick steel in it. But that was later determined to be dumping. The mills are winding down, and I'm unloading dumped South African steel!

This was 95th Street at the river, before they built the Chicago port at Lake Calumet. I don't think many ships are unloaded there anymore, but historically this was an important place. I mean, what made Chicago happen was Lake Michigan's proximity to the Des Plaines River, which eventually flows into the Mississippi. On the southwest side, out near Midway, there's less than a mile that you have to traverse by land to get from the Great Lakes watershed to the Mississippi watershed--from the northern Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico. I can remember going to that site. It's now a landmark, and there's a plaque there that says that the original Tribune printing press was dragged in a canoe on rollers from the Des Plaines River across this portage into the South Branch of the Chicago River. All the timber and ore coming out of the north, Wisconsin, upper Michigan--it all came through Chicago on the way into the Mississippi, which took it to Saint Louis, which was a huge city long before Chicago showed up. Eventually McCormick and those guys said gee, we should just make it into products right here, so then Chicago became a manufacturing center. And then when they switched to rail traffic, it's pretty hard to get a locomotive across the lake, so they swung the rails around the lake and that's how Chicago became a railroad town. The neighborhood I grew up in was bordered on four sides by huge berms of railroad tracks. I mean, it was really a cloistered little place, and you had to go through a viaduct to get in or out in any direction.

With the railroads come the telegraph lines--copper cable. You have a huge concentration of telegraph lines coming around the bottom of Lake Michigan. When the telegraph becomes the telephone, same copper. Now we have the Internet. The Internet is mostly a fiber-optic network, glass instead of copper. But because all the copper came to Chicago, the fiber naturally followed.

One of the things we're doing in this lab, one of the main ways we get our money, is by creating demand for better and faster networks. The first CAVE bought by private industry was bought by General Motors. They were building clay models of car interiors--cars yet to be built. And they built these models so the bean counters, who couldn't visualize the interior of the car when it was on paper, could actually go and look at it. It would cost them roughly a million dollars to build one car interior out of clay, and then some guy would say, "I don't like where the radio is, move the radio." And two and a half months later a team of guys would have moved the radio from point A to point B. Then someone would say, "Change the color." So when we demonstrated the first CAVE, the prototype, the engineers at GM said, "Why don't we just show it to them in a CAVE?" That's what they did. The first job I had when I joined the lab was to go to Detroit and look at available sites where we could fit one of these. So I figured out where it would go, made all the drawings, and then delivered the drawings to GM's millwrights, who made the parts. Then I arm-waved the installation, and then the other team from the university came and helped put all the computer stuff in. Now they sit an executive down in there and say OK, what do you think? And the guy says, "Uh, make it green." They go click, and it's green. He goes, "Wow, we just saved $300,000. Move the radio." So they move the radio. This is something that used to take six months to a year; now it can be accomplished in less than a day. It used to cost them a couple of million dollars from start to finish, now it costs almost nothing.

We've also developed another, smaller virtual reality device, the ImmersaDesk, which is a lot easier to move around. It projects on a single screen instead of all around you, but it's still able to show you a 3-D object: you can make a virtual object float in front of you, you can look at it from the top or the front or the sides. One of the docs at our medical center has put a model of the inner ear into the computer, and he does regular collaborative lectures with docs studying the inner ear at medical institutions throughout the world. They go in front of ImmersaDesks at their teaching hospitals and they get a direct lecture from the horse's mouth.

To do that they have to be able to communicate data very quickly, and it's an enormous amount of data. That's how we create demand for faster networks. The visualization techniques that we've invented present the most severe demand on the Internet of the future. They stress the system. So we can show the bean counters in Washington why there needs to be a next-generation Internet initiative, why it should be funded. And that's one of the reasons the Science Foundation continues to fund our research.

When I was in high school I spent two years working part-time in a grocery store, and I couldn't wait for Saturday when the customer rush came, because I would bag. And I would make these cubic bags that people couldn't pick up. They'd say, "Put it in three bags," and I'm like, "Why? You're wasting bags, lady. It all fits in one, see?" So when I took the college entrance tests and they told me that I aced "spatial arrangements"--I forget exactly what they called it, but you looked at drawings of things that were like clumps of building blocks and tried to say which ones fit together and so on--I said that was no contest, I mean, for me that stuff is stupid simple.

But I didn't know what that meant at the time, I didn't know you could do that for a living. I later found out that when someone showed me a shop drawing of a widget, I had a widget in my mind that was three-dimensional, and I could put light on it, and then I could draw it in three dimensions. Or if you had a reclined nude on a podium and said put him on the page, I could do that too. I have this ability to visualize things in three dimensions. There are a whole bunch of people who don't have that.

I came to the university as an art student, and simultaneously got a job as a student assistant in the wood shop. That's what they called it, but the wood shop really had every piece of power equipment you'd find in any manufacturing facility in the midwest. The guy I worked for said, "You need an exercise to show you why it's important to keep the table-saw blade sharp--here, build this." And he'd hand me a drawing of a part. And I would duplicate what was on the drawing in three-space in some material and hand it back to him. A year after I was there I was building grandfather clocks in my spare time. I'd draw a clock, crunch out some parts, slowly assemble them. So every one of my relatives has a grandfather clock. You get married, Greg gives you a grandfather clock. It's a standard deal.

Well it didn't take very long before professors were coming in saying, here, I need this, here's a drawing, make this. So I became a machinist, and I learned how to weld all the metals, and I learned how to work wood in every possible way. And I ran into this professor who said, I need somebody who can make printed circuit boards. Then, I need somebody to solder the parts on it. Now I need a cabinet to go around it. Well pretty soon I'm pounding out chassis and building electronic image processors. That's the guy I still work for today, that professor.

In industry--or let's just say in life in general--there are those who see in 3-D and those who don't. And those who see in 3-D, they're typically in the manufacturing skills. They're carpenters, plumbers, tradesmen more often than not--anybody who builds stuff or anybody who can read blueprints. And those who don't see in 3-D usually end up being the bean counters, the money managers, the people who shuffle paper and pass words around instead of objects. It always amazes me how many of the programmers here look at the drawings I do and it's complete Greek to them: it's not a flow diagram, it's not computer programming, it represents volumetric abstractions, and the only way they can represent a volume is in a formula--mathematically. But you put that formula into the computer and our display devices can show it in three-space. So part of what I do now is work for a lab that for the first time makes it possible for people with no spatial skills at all to do visualization in 3-D. And there's this epiphany that takes place when that happens. This virtual reality allows the builders and the bean counters to get together and have meaningful dialogue, to point and sniff and scratch and see something volumetric, even though it isn't there yet.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Wes Pope.


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