The Teapot that Became the Standard in Computer Graphics
You might not know it, but there's an incredibly famous teapot that has been in hundreds of films and TV in the past decades. Toy Story, The Simpsons, your old computer screensaver – all these things and more contained the same teapot hidden away.
This unassuming teapot dates back to 1974 and it is arguably the most influential object in computer graphics.
Computer scientist Martin Newell was a Ph.D. student at the University of Utah, which was a powerhouse of computer graphics in the 1970s. Newell had innovative ideas about how he could render 3D shapes in computer graphics with things like shadows, reflective textures, and obscure surfaces. The problem was, at the time, there wasn't a digital object that Newell had access to test out his ideas.
Students and professors proposed objects like chess pawns, donuts or urns, but all were deemed too simple to test these new graphics methods on.
The idea of the teapot
Newell struggled to find an object until one day while drinking tea with his wife, she proposed that he digitized the teapot they were using. The teapot was from a local department store and had all the necessary features: curves, a handle, a lid, and the spout, all covered in a reflective ceramic surface. It was perfect.
Newell quickly sketched out the pot with dimensions, and once he returned to his lab, he entered the coordinates to build the digital object using a method with Bézier control points on a Tektronix storage tube – an early type of computer graphics module. The end result was one of the most versatile and useful 3D models to date. However, Nowell's original teapot wasn't in its final form yet.
His colleague, Jim Blinn, adjusted the teapot's height during a demonstration and decided he liked that version better. It was at this point that the Utah teapot was born...
Newell and his colleague Blinn used the teapot extensively for their own research, but they believed that it was important they shared their model publicly. At the time, other researchers were also starved for a versatile 3D model and the Utah teapot was perfect. The model was used so extensively that some researchers had even memorized the exact data points of the model.
In the close-knit computer graphics industry, the teapot quickly became a cherished staple. Anyone who had a new idea about computer graphics tested it out on the teapot first.
In 1989, Newell's teapot was used on banners and promotional material for the SIGGRAPH conference. Newell was invited to give the keynote address and had this to say about the entire experience:
"It was quite bizarre. This room full of thousands of people hanging on my every word about the teapot. I thought, 'This is ridiculous. This will put it to rest. That's it.'"
The Utah teapot today and in pop-culture
In modern times, the Utah teapot is legendary. It's a built-in shape within most graphics software packages and is still used for testing and demonstration. All this fame has led to the graphics community sneaking the teapot into films all over the place.
Martin Newell today has said that despite all of the innovations he's worked on, he'll, unfortunately, be remembered for "that damned teapot."
The teapot has been integrated into many modern animated films and TV shows as an homage to its original creation and importance in the industry. In fact, it was an inside joke for many years among the animation industry to try and hide the Utah teapot in the sense of films. The teapot appears in Toy Story for a tea party scene as well as in a Simpsons episode, "Treehouse of Horror VI". These two shows are just the tip of the iceberg, though.
The teapot also appears in Monsters, Inc. and in The Sims 2, among many other places. Notably, it's also hidden in the infamous Pipes screensaver for Microsoft Windows. If you look through the menagerie of pipes, you're likely to see the teapot tucked away.
As for how the teapot is currently being used in industry, it's come full circle from being an originally real object to a computer-generated object to now being used as a standard 3D object once again. With the advent of 3D printing, the Utah teapot is being used as a test model for 3D printers.
Many companies are using the Utah Teapot model for interesting projects as well. A Belgian design studio called Unfold 3D printed the teapot in a ceramic material to bring the model fully back to its origins as a ceramic teapot from a thrift store.
Today, the Utah teapot stands as a reminder today that sometimes simple objects can be the basis of future innovation.