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U of T celebrates its digital media pioneers

MaRS hosts "double bill" of Buxton and Reeves

William Buxton and William Reeves in conversation with Eugene Fiume of U of T's Department of Computer Science (photo by Lisa Sakulensky)

William Reeves holds a leading technical role at Pixar Animation; William Buxton is a principal scientist at Microsoft Research.

Both are Computer Science graduates from the University of Toronto and now honorary degree recipients.

Reeves and Buxton took time out from Convocation to share the stage at the MaRS Discovery District June 5 for an unforgettable afternoon of conversation with 200 U of T students, faculty, staff and community members.

Acknowledged as visionaries in their fields, the pair have imagined and created technologies that affect everyday lives – in Reeves’ case, beautiful, award-winning films, and in Buxton’s case, mobile tools used on tablet computers and smartphones.

“It’s important to have world-class innovators like Buxton and Reeves come back to campus,” said Kimberly Silk of Rotman’s Martin Prosperity Institute. “Their discussion about their early days in the computer science department helps students understand that every great achiever began somewhere rather ordinary, and through nurturing environments like the Dynamic Graphics Project they were able to hone their curiosity to create great things throughout their careers.”

Audience members called the conversation, moderated by Computer Science faculty member Eugene Fiume, inspiring and engaging, with clear differences between the two luminaries: Reeves was more soft-spoken, modest; Buxton was the energetic, more outgoing of the two.

“[I] don’t stop talking, and [Reeves] doesn’t say a word,” said Buxton, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

Apparent throughout the discussion, however, was the great professional respect the two have for each other, and a mutual fondness for their time at U of T, particularly in the Department of Computer Science’s Dynamic Graphics Lab.

“None of us thought we were doing anything extraordinary,” Buxton said. “No one ever said what we were doing was hard, so it was the best possible climate in which to learn and experiment [without being overwhelmed or intimidated].”

It was an environment that nurtured creativity, Reeves said.

“We would just show up [at the lab], and then stay, and stay, and stay, and have fun, and learn,” said Reeves. “I still try to recreate that environment at Pixar, when I have the opportunity.”

Recalling that relaxed, stimulating environment encouraged Buxton to reflect upon government’s efforts to support education.

“You can’t predict where the great ideas are going to come from,” Buxton said. “The university needs to cultivate smart people with imagination.”

Computer science undergraduate student Mary Malit was encouraged by Buxton’s advice about pursuing passions, but making sure to do some things that force you to be a beginner, so you stay on that uncomfortable edge of learning something new.

“He probably thought this was a small thing he said, but I’m pretty sure that I will remember it for the rest of my life,” said Malit.

Reeves received his Doctor of Science, honoris causa, on Wednesday, June 5. Buxton received his Doctor of Science, honoris causa, on Thursday, June 6.

Sara Franca is a writer with the University of Toronto's Department of Computer Science.