Spectrum: Interactive Media & Online Developer News

8 August 2005
Reported, written and edited by David Duberman
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This week we have my report from Siggraph 2005 and a few news items; we'll follow up next week with a number of additional news stories from the show.

IMPORTANT NOTE: As of now, the Spectrum email address is spectrum_news [at] yahoo.com (replace the " [at] " with @). Using Web-based email address will allow us to change ISPs (which we plan to do shortly) without having to change the email address. Please update your address book as soon as possible, and accept our apologies for the inconvenience.

David Duberman


Today's Headlines (details below)

--Siggraph 2005

--Virtools Upgrades Software Suite
--Khronos Releases OpenGL ES 2.0 Spec

--Lucas, CG Tech Draw More Than 29,000 to L.A.
--Character Animation Technologies Previews CAT2
--Alias Announces Maya 7
--Avid Unveils Softimage|XSI v.5.0
--Autodesk Updates 3ds Max, Discreet Digital Video Software
--Avid Previews Facial Animation Tech

--About Spectrum



Siggraph 2005
By David Duberman

I had a great time at Siggraph this year, as always. The L.A. convention center is a top-notch venue for the show, being big enough to hold the vast array of content while not so spread out that you need to walk for half an hour between sessions, as in New Orleans. The show will be in Boston next year; I might have to skip that one, being based on the west coast. San Diego in '07; going to that one for sure. But it was particularly exciting to hear that the show will return to San Francisco in 2010; I'm there! If I'm still alive, that is.

The official post-show press release (condensed below, under Graphically Speaking) noted attendance of 29,000+ without mentioning how that compared to recent shows, but it certainly seemed more crowded than last year. I was standing just inside the entrance to the exhibition show floor when they first opened the doors Tuesday morning, and the attendees rushed in so fast and intently I had a hard time crossing to my destination.

I have to say, the "keynote" by George Lucas was a bit underwhelming; he evidently hadn't prepared anything, but simply sat in an easy chair and allowed himself to be interviewed by someone who didn't seem to pay much attention to his answers. Also, an unfortunate camera angle emphasized his rather sizable wattle, which was a bit distracting. Be that as it may, many in the audience seemed to be excited to be in the presence of the Jedi chief himself, and it was fun to hear about his future plans: mostly TV shows based on Star Wars. It'll be interesting to see if Lucas can pull himself out of the creative slump evinced by his recent filmic ventures. He mentioned "pre-viz" several times; it's obvious he's particularly intrigued by this use of 3D software for figuring out movie shots before the camerawork actually takes place.

As always at Siggraph, I was pressed for time, but this year in particular I had to leave early, so was unable to attend a number of sessions I would've liked to. On Sunday, the first day, I attended a class entitled Anyone Can Make Quality Animated Films! (The Eight Basic Steps to Success). If you're the type who likes to skip to the end to get the good stuff, I'll save you time by listing the eight steps right up front:

* Write a good story script
* Develop an appealing style
* Create a tight storyboard
* Record dynamic voices
* Create backgrounds that fit the story
* Produce the best-quality animation within your budget
* Composite for entertainment value
* Deliver workable release prints.

The presentation was delivered by three instructors at The Art Institute of California - San Diego (they also work in the entertainment industry): Eric Van Hammersveld, Bob Hanon, and Debra Miller. Their roles weren't immediately evident (probably because I missed the start of the class), but Van Hammersveld seems to be production oriented, Hanon is a skilled artist and spoke extensively on storyboarding and background creation, and Miller is adept at twisting her voice around different speaking styles.

The presenters seemed to favor 2D animation at the expense of 3D, which is, of course, what most of the Siggraph audience would be using to create animation. That no doubt springs from their work experience, although Van Hammersveld, toward the end of the course, offered up the interesting rumor that Pixar has purchased the recently abandoned Disney 2D animation equipment, and is soliciting 2D demo reels from potential employees. Of course, there's no basis in fact there … or is there? At any rate, most of the material was equally relevant to both 2D and 3D animation, although Hanon did point out that backgrounds for 2D projects need to be less obtrusive than those for 3D animation. I don't necessarily endorse that view, but he's the expert.

Knowing your audience was one of the overarching themes of the (non-interactive) class. That's always a good idea when striving for success with a creative project, but, as Van Hammersveld pointed out, many movie producers nowadays seem to be aiming for eight-year-old viewers, creating movies with lots of sizzle (i.e., special effects) but no substance (i.e., story). As an example of this, he cited the recent War of the Worlds remake, most of which followed the protagonists as they ran from the Martian invaders. This in contrast to the 1953 version, in which the lead character, portrayed by Gene Barry, actually tried to do something about the invasion.

When devising a project, it's also important to determine what it is that intrigues you about the story. Find something that reflects your interests in life, that's very personal; something that stirs your passions. Similarly, you need to decide what kind of emotional response you want from the audience; what they should leave the theater with. These concerns tie in to the following portion of the course: the pitch. It's not a particularly creative pursuit, but it is necessary if you're not independently wealthy and you need money to produce the animation.

When preparing for a pitch, one of the most important tasks, according to Debra Miller, is to know yourself and acknowledge your fear of public speaking. No problem, if you're an accomplished public speaker, but if not you might want to consider joining a group such as Toastmasters for support.

Hanon addressed his remarks more to creative aspects of the animation process, such as the need for a style guide, which conveys basic design info for project consistency. Such a document must include character models, prop models, location and environmental design, painted backgrounds and background keys, and color styling. Make many sketches of the various characters, while rereading the script to discover what the character "feels like" to you. When creating character action sheets, it often helps to get up and pose yourself. It's also important to draw characters in groups to see if they fit together. Hanon also asserts that the world is your sketchbook; look at people and break down why one is a character and why he or she impresses you. There was a great deal more information of value and use, not only to those making animated movies but to those creating animation for interactive endeavors.

I also attended a panel on Networked Performance, composed of a number of artists and academics who are stretching the accepted definitions of performance by using technology in heretofore unimagined ways. They discussed theoretical and practical implications of their research. Later, in the Guerrilla Studio, a hands-on fixture at Siggraph, I had a brief chance to experience a game developed by panelist Julian Bleecker of USC, who, among other pursuits, creates high-tech versions of classic kids' games. In his take on Red Light Green Light, the player uses a tablet computer combined with an orientation sensor so that, as he turns, he can see other players coming toward him from all directions, instead of just from one direction as in the original version. It was fun, although I didn't do very well at it.

The most interesting session I attended was a panel entitled Believable Characters: Are AI-Driven Characters Possible, and Where Will They Take Us? This is an important issue that deserves to be addressed at a graphics conference for the simple reason that highly realistic-looking characters, as will appear in the next generation of console games, seem creepy to the player if they don't act realistically as well. If you've ever played an adventure-type game, you've probably experienced this when you asked a character a question several times and received an identical answer each time. Such interactions do not lead to suspension of disbelief, as is required for an immersive game experience, but rather heightening of it.

The panel was somewhat weighted toward the commercial side of the games industry, with three representatives from Electronic Arts, some of whom didn't seem to understand the real issues at stake. Instead, I'll mostly limit my review to the remarks of Andrew Stern (http://www.interactivestory.net/), researcher and developer at Zoesis Studios. Stern, the most visionary (or perhaps idealistic) panel member, recently released Façade, the result of a four-year collaboration with Michael Mateas. Façade is an unusual pastime (I hesitate to call it an actual game) that involves the player visiting an arguing couple. You can type in anything you want, to which the couple will respond or not in well-acted spoken voice and simple but expressive 2D animation. You can also hug and kiss either member of the couple, but that can be inappropriate and might lead to your being booted from the apartment.

Stern characterizes game characters as beautiful, often violent, often dumb as doorknobs, and, at their most advanced, akin to sufferers of autism. Even the best characters are limited in scope; for example, those in Halo 2 incorporate spatial intelligence for close combat, but nothing else. Characters in The Sims have a broad but shallow range of behaviors; he describes them as "ants in people clothing" that satisfy their desires by "hill climbing." Like a previous panelist, he mentioned the groundbreaking research of roboticist Masahiro Mori, who originally used the term "uncanny valley" to describe how characters that look real but don't behave as humans do can seem spooky.

In the next generation of consoles, Stern foresees the "big hair era of games," in which developers will boost the visuals but not the AI. In fact, he thinks it might be a step backwards because the general-purpose CPU mostly feeds the graphics pipeline. If gaming is to advance and gain a larger audience, intelligence is sorely needed; mostly important, characters need to listen for and understand more player expressions. To avoid the uncanny valley, developers must imbue their games with a high degree of reactivity and agency, as well as believable character and gameplay design.

Admittedly, these desires are admirable, if somewhat impractical given the current state of the industry. The other panelists spoke in more real-world terms; for example, one EA game designer addressed the issue of causing players in a sports game to make more realistic turns. Moderator Stephen Gray of EA doesn't think that the upcoming cycle will generate real AI, but is the cycle in which we can add enough subtlety to start on the road to believability. He also issued a challenge to game makers and toolmakers to create ways to make better AI. In particular, we need procedural animation, with ways to let artists adjust the procedures. The days of clipping together linear animation have to end.

The highlight of the show was the Electronic Theater, which isn't news if you've been to Siggraph before or have read my previous reports from the show. I won't go into specifics, but I will say it was the most enthralling couple of hours I've spent watching a screen, big or little, in recent memory. If you live in or near a city with a Siggraph chapter, ask them to get the show, or else buy the DVDs. They're not cheap, but they're worth it, especially if you're looking for stellar examples of animation to aspire to.



Virtools Upgrades Software Suite

Virtools, recently acquired by Dassault Systemes, announced Virtools Software Suite 3.5. The set of software-development solutions for building interactive 3D content, is said to be the result of client and partner feedback. Enhancements and new functionalities for release 3.5, which will begin shipping in one month, were defined in conjunction with advanced customers, such as Honeywell and Procter & Gamble.

Procter & Gamble (P&G) uses Virtools Dev as the underlying technology for the development of an interactive 3D application that supports the initiative management process. Several hundred users across all of P&G's global business units, along with P&G suppliers, use the application to speed up and improve internal decision making and innovation.

Virtools Dev 3.5 offers new features oriented towards better compatibility and support for external technologies and formats, as well as enhanced control over the rendering pipeline.

Enhancements include:



Khronos Releases OpenGL ES 2.0 Spec

The Khronos Group announced at Siggraph that it has released the OpenGL ES 2.0, OpenGL ES 1.1 Extension Pack, EGL 1.2 and OpenGL ES-SC 1.0 specifications. The OpenGL ES standard is royalty-free and defines subset profiles of OpenGL to enable small-footprint embedded applications with advanced graphics capabilities and has been widely adopted by the wireless and gaming industries. All the OpenGL ES-related specifications are available for free download at http://www.khronos.org/opengles/.

OpenGL ES 2.0 combines a version of the OpenGL Shading Language for programming vertex and fragment shaders that has been adapted for embedded platforms, together with a streamlined API from OpenGL ES 1.1 that has removed any fixed functionality that can be easily replaced by shader programs, to minimize the cost and power of advanced programmable graphics subsystems. The released specification is provisional, as Khronos will fine-tune the specification as the industry gains implementation experience of embedded programmable graphics over the next six months, and silicon vendors are enabled to immediately start processor designs.

The OpenGL ES 1.1 Extension Pack collects together a number of optional extensions in one specification to extend OpenGL ES functionality for fixed function hardware. The Extension Pack also raises the baseline for visual configurations to reduce the number of variations that ISVs need to support, reportedly making porting OpenGL ES of applications across multiple platforms both easier and faster.

The latest version of the EGL library for interfacing with and controlling platform, memory and buffer resources -- EGL 1.2 -- has been extended to enable rendering using both OpenGL ES and OpenVG -- the new 2D vector graphics standards also announced by Khronos -- enabling accelerated, mixed-mode 2D and 3D rendering.



Lucas, CG Tech Draw More Than 29,000 to L.A.

Siggraph 2005, the 32nd conference on computer graphics and interactive techniques, attracted 29,122 artists, research scientists, developers, and academics from 81 countries to Los Angeles this week. More than 250 companies exhibited, including 65 for the first time, covering more than 70,000 net square feet of space.

The Siggraph 2005 keynote event featured George Lucas in an interview format. In the revealing dialogue, Lucas, who is lauded as the father of digital cinema and internationally known for visionary cinematic feats such as "Stars Wars" and "Indiana Jones," explained, "I am a storyteller at heart."

Looking to the future, Lucas expressed his belief that advancements in artificial intelligence will vastly change technology and particularly the game industry. "I want to get to the point where you can talk to a game and the game will talk back." Lucas discussed his plans for Lucasfilm to head more into the television arena, and commented that unlike industry visionary Walt Disney, he does not plan to expand his Industrial Light & Magic effects shop into a film studio.

"This is the first group I could come to that didn't ask me what digital arts are," commented Lucas on his 1984 visit to SIGGRAPH. Explaining to the audience that he is not a computer person, Lucas stressed that his quest for innovation was a quest for immaculate reality, "How do we make this real?...How do we get immaculate reality?" Looking to the thousands of Siggraph faces before him, Lucas smiled and stated," I don't care how you how you do it, I am just glad you are doing it."

The Computer Animation Festival jury gave "9" by Shane Acker (United States) "Best of Show" honors. Jury Honors were also given to "Fallen Art" by Tomek Baginski of Platige Image (Poland) and "La Migration Bigoudenn" by Eric Castaing, Alexandre Heboyan, and Fafah Togora of Gobelins, l'ecole de l'image (France).

ACM Siggraph presented three awards at the conference to recognize individuals who made a significant contribution to the computer graphics community.

Tomoyuki Nishita of the University of Tokoyo received the Steven Anson Coons Award for Outstanding Creative Contributions to Computer Graphics for his work on rendering of natural phenomena. Jos Stam, a senior research scientist at Alias, received the Computer Graphics Achievement Award for his pioneering work on subdivision surfaces and on fast Algorithms for the simulation of natural phenomena, especially fire, fluids, and gases. Ronald Fedkiw of Stanford University received the Significant New Researcher Award for his contributions to the field of computational fluid dynamics.

Through an award partnership between Laval Virtual France and Siggraph, the 2005 Emerging Technologies installation, "Touch Light: An Imaging Screen and Display for Gesture-Based Interaction," was selected by Laval Virtual France for presentation at their conference 26-30 April. The technology, developed by Andy Wilson of Microsoft Research is a unique transparent display using computer vision technology enabling new applications in gesture-based user interface, video conferencing, augmented reality, and ubiquitous computing. Two members of the Siggraph 2006 conference planning committee will travel to Laval France next April to select a winning installation to be invited to display at Siggraph 2006 in Boston.

Siggraph 2006, the 33rd International Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques, will be held in the Boston Convention Center, 30 July - 3 August 2006. For more information on how to participate, see the Siggraph 2006 Call for Presentations at http://www.siggraph.org/s2006.


Character Animation Technologies Previews CAT2

At SIGGRAPH 2005, Character Animation Technologies Ltd., a New Zealand-based developer of 3D character-animation tools, provided a look at CAT Version 2. A plug-in for Autodesk's 3ds Max, CAT2 is the next generation of the character system CAT (Character Animation Toolkit).

CAT was designed to provide animators the flexibility of a custom rig without the slowdown and technical complexity. Artists can create any rig configuration in minutes and save it as a preset for reuse. With the software's procedural walk-cycle system, walk sequences can be achieved in less than an hour, and keyframing is said to be faster and more intuitive. CAT's non-linear animation system also greatly improves flexibility and efficiency and artists can build entire libraries of animation clips to be loaded onto any other CATRig.

Enhancements and new features include:



Alias Announces Maya 7

Maya 7 software offers new and improved tools for character animation, streamlined modeling and texturing, visual effects, and increased productivity. One customer-driven feature is a re-architecture of the Maya render layers functionality, which means that multiple versions of objects, including materials, lights and cameras, as well as post processes such as Maya Fur and Maya Paint Effects, can now be managed in a single scene file.

Render layers can be rendered with any renderer integrated in Maya, including the latest mental ray for Maya technology. This new workflow not only streamlines the rendering process, but it also prepares renders for optimal output to the artists' compositor of choice, or to Adobe Photoshop or Macromedia Flash.

The integration of the full-body IK solver from Alias MotionBuilder is designed to make rigging and posing characters simpler and more precise, as do paintable Blend Shapes and Wire deformers. Maya 7 now also supports collaborative, parallel workflows through its ability to iteratively substitute geometry and allow modelers, animators and technical directors to work on the same character simultaneously in a non-destructive way.

Maya 7 introduces RenderMan-compatible variable creasing on smoothly subdivided polygon meshes, allowing control between smooth and hard edges


Other enhancements for game developers include Edge Loop and Edge Ring tools, UV unfolding, tri-planar and multi-mesh mapping, together with the inclusion of CgFX and ASHLI plug-ins, which allow hardware shaders for next-generation consoles to be previewed within Maya. Maya 7 also helps artists optimize scenes without loss of visible detail through a new Surface Sampler, which utilizes normal mapping and other data transfer methods between models of differing resolutions.

A new Toon Shader leverages Maya's Paint Effects to support a range of non-photorealistic rendering styles; it affords control over line style, placement and width, and features interactive previews in near real-time. Among the many enhancements in Maya Unlimited, Maya Hair can now be transplanted from one character to another, Maya Fur is now integrated with Maya's dynamic curve technology, and Maya Fluid Effects benefits from a new High Detail solve mode.



Avid Unveils Softimage|XSI v.5.0

Avid Technology, Inc. (NASDAQ: AVID) expects to ship version 5.0 of the company's flagship Softimage|XSI 3-D animation software in September. New features include Ultimapper, a map-generation tool for producing maps in a few clicks; and Gator, a property-transfer system for merging textured, animated 3D models. In addition to running on standard 32-bit CPUs, Softimage|XSI v.5.0 will also be available in a native 64-bit configuration, which reportedly lets users model, animate and render scenes with billions of polygons and layers of 3D, film, and video content.

The new version also includes features for streamlining the process for modeling, texturing, and rigging changes to characters without reconstructing bones, bone weights or shape animation. There's also migration tools for Maya users, such as a customizable user interface with new menu, keyboard and mouse navigation properties.

Softimage|XSI v.5.0 has been re-architected to take full advantage of dual-core 64-bit CPUs, which can access large amounts of physical memory to effectively double production throughput during the CG content creation process. In addition, Softimage|XSI v.5.0 is integrated with version 3.4 of the mental ray rendering software.

Additional features in Softimage|XSI v.5.0 include:

Softimage|XSI v.5.0 is expected to be available in September 2005 for purchase in the following configurations:

  • Softimage|XSI v.5.0 Foundation for $495 from the Softimage Website at www.softimage.com/store.
  • Softimage|XSI v.5.0 Essentials for $1,995 from authorized Softimage resellers.
  • Softimage|XSI v.5.0 Advanced for $6,995 from authorized Softimage resellers.



    Autodesk Updates 3ds Max, Discreet Digital Video Software

    At Siggraph, Autodesk announced 3ds Max 8, the newest version of its 3D-animation software. The company also showed recently announced updates to its Discreet line of visual effects, editing and digital color grading systems during the conference at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

    3ds Max 8 reportedly delivers advanced character tools, scripting features, asset management, and more. For a complete list of new 3ds Max 8 features, visit: http://www.autodesk.com/3dsmax .

    Autodesk demonstrated new versions of its systems products, including Discreet Fire 7 and Discreet Smoke 7 editing systems; Discreet Inferno 6.5, Discreet Flame 9.5 and Discreet Flint 9.5 visual effects systems; and the Discreet Lustre 2.6 digital color grading system. Autodesk's IRIX- based Fire, Smoke, Inferno and Flame systems feature a new 64-bit architecture. New features include a paint system, optimized optical flow Timewarp functionality, and enhanced keycode.


    Avid Previews Facial Animation Tech

    At Siggraph, Avid Technology also previewed Softimage|Face Robot, its new facial-animation technology. The technology is built on a new computer model of facial soft tissue said to mimic the full range of emotions portrayed by the human face.

    The Face Robot software supports both keyframe animation and motion capture. The soft tissue model at the core of the technology is said to remove the need to manually create dozens or even hundreds of 3D shapes for different facial expressions and allows animators to work with control points. Keyframe animators can gain access to facial expressions, while motion-capture animators can work with fewer markers to reduce setup and cleanup time.




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    Spectrum is an independent news service published every Monday for the interactive media professional community by Motion Blur Media. Spectrum covers the tools and technologies used to create interactive multimedia applications and infrastructure for business, education, and entertainment; and the interactive media industry scene. We love to receive interactive media/online-development tools and end product for review.

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