Siggraph 2004 Report
By David Duberman
There's more to life than Siggraph, but sometimes when you're enveloped in the show's vast canopy of sensory input, it's hard to keep that in mind. This year's conference was more and less than previous years: More attendees than last year, but it seemed to me--and this is only an impression--that there were fewer exhibitors and sessions. But, as always, there was more to do than one could fit into five days.
A perennial high point is the animation: the Animation Theatres and the Electronic Theatre. The latter, for the first time in memory, was held in the confines of the convention center rather than off-site (I rather like the Shrine Auditorium). ET was highlighted by Pixar's "Boundin'," a catchy little musical number starring a sometimes-shorn dancing lamb, with some of the most astounding character animation I've ever seen. But even more impressive was Ryan, winner of the Siggraph Jury Award. Essentially a one-man documentary created over a year and a half by Chris Landreth, the short film (7:46 in the abbreviated version shown at ET, 13:51 full-length) tells the story of Ryan Larkin, a former (traditional) animator who was once nominated for an Academy Award and now spends his days panhandling for beer money on the streets of Montreal. Landreth's technique, which he calls "psychorealism," graphically depicts both subject and filmmaker as damaged individuals. See it if you can. I also enjoyed "Frank," an animation by Taruto Fuyama based on the comic art of Jim Woodring (bears repeated viewing, but that's true of most Siggraph work), and "Dahucapra Rupidahu," a hilarious, photorealistic, deadpan spoof of nature documentaries.
Visionary keynotes are a Siggraph trademark, and this year's, by futurist/sci-fi author (is there a difference?) Bruce Sterling, was no exception. Sterling started his address, "When Blobjects Rule the Earth," on an amusing note, describing how, although he'd never attended Siggraph previously, he has a closet full of "antique" demo reels from the show on VHS. He described these as slices of space and time that cannot be recaptured, mainly because it's impossible to do CG that bad anymore. He went on to tell his audience that it has only one world left to conquer: the real world. Sterling is apparently fearful that humans, who will soon number 10 billion, are heedlessly burying our home (i.e., planet earth) under our detritus (e.g., spent gadgets and gizmos such as cell phones), and that one of the ways we can survive is by creating "blobjects," which don't exist yet. A prototype, in a strictly formal sense, is today's curvy gizmos such as the remote control, which couldn't be created until recently, and owes its design to CG. That was the sole and slim relationship to the event, however; the rest of what he said related more closely to visionary, but general, IT as opposed to CG.
The blobject is the scion of a long line of manmade "stuff," starting with artifacts, created by and for hunter/gatherers. Then came machines from the manufacturing culture, products from the consumer culture, and finally gizmos, created by and for end users. Sterling further characterized the gizmo as being an open-ended tech project; having a short lifespan; offering more functionality than you will ever use or understand; and being inefficient. It's delicately poised between simplicity and chaos; the classic form of our society's material culture at this time. Sterling posited his Treo as a quintessential example of the gizmo: "It's a dessert topping *and* a floorwax."
The next stage, according to Sterling, will be the blobject, a subset of the gizmo class. The imaginary object is an example of a "spime," precisely lodged in space and time. It's the protagonist of a fully-documented process; an auto-evolving physical object. It learns from your actions; the providers want you to do as much of the development work as possible, just as you work for Amazon when you shop on their Website. A spime wants you to become an expert; it tells you everything about it, including conventional and unconventional uses, and especially how to get rid of it. Sterling recited long lists of its capabilities, but because it doesn't exist yet, he was unable to give a clear picture of exactly what it is, beyond being some sort of next-generation PDA/cell-phone. It's obvious that he has as clear a vision for spimes/blobjects as is possible at this time, and he predicted several times that the Siggraph audience would, in future, be "wrangling spimes" for a living. And because the spime is an evolving object, presumably we wouldn't be tossing it into landfills as readily as we do today with cell phones, remote controls, computers, and the like. Sterling advocates that the natural world should be better for human efforts (not worse, as it is today), and proposes wise governance for a digitally conquered world.
On a slightly more mundane level, a Sunday half-day class entitled Acting and Drawing for Animation was packing them in; in fact, people started lining up over two hours early for tickets for this event. It turned out to be worth the wait, at least in part because the lion's share of the "teaching" was done by an unannounced lecturer. James Donlon is a mime, or, as he describes himself, a master of motion theatre. He's a performer and teacher, and he had the class of 100, barefoot and sitting on the floor, doing things I'm sure most of us had never done before. The exercises started out solo with various types of basic movements; later, we paired up and tossed facial expressions and body motions back and forth, and posed illustrating more-or-less abstract concepts as "tall" and "invisible." It was all in pursuit of teaching animators how to move in new ways, so as to add creativity to their work. In between the physical training, animator/college teacher Larry Lauria, who was sketching the students throughout, led us through various drawing exercises. And, to top it all off, Donlon gave two masterful solo pantomime performances. All in all, it was an enthralling, invigorating experience; kudos to organizers Lucilla Potter Hoshor and John W. Finnegan for producing such a worthwhile course. If it's offered again at a future Siggraph, I encourage you to attend.
The rest of the show was great as well. It's always interesting to see what's new at the Emerging Tech pavilion. This year it offered some innovative physical experiences, such as a force feedback interface that uses air jets, and a trio of small, moving platforms that let you walk forward while staying in place. The latter, called CirculaFloor, uses an ingenious method, where the platform that you leave scurries around to the front side of the one you're currently on. The tech is still very rudimentary, forcing you to walk very slowly, and allowing you to move only straight ahead. It does, however, hold promise for virtual-reality-type applications that let you seem to move freely rather than having to stay rooted in place.
Another clever use of VR technology at ET was called Swimming Across the Pacific. In what's essentially a simulated ocean swim, the user dons a hang-gliding vest and is suspended face down with ropes and pulleys in a 8-foot-cubic wooden frame. The device uses bungee cords and sand bags to simulate buoyancy, and tracks the swimmer's movements with eight magnetic sensors while the swimmer views the simulated world through a head-mounted display. The developers hope eventually to place such a unit on a trans-Pacific jetliner so that well-heeled passengers can "swim" as they fly.
Further on in the physical ET realm, Tickle Salon uses a probe, consisting of a metal ball dressed in a tiny fringed skirt, to sense the contours bare back of a person lying prone on a mattress. As the probe moves over and around the subject, using an inverted-wire suspension, it maps the body shape for a subsequent tickle session. The developers' ultimate goal is to "simulate friendship between humans and machines."
Other highlights included the always-inspiring art gallery, this year dubbed "Synaesthesia," and lots of fascinating papers and panels, parties, random encounters, much to do and see on the exhibition floor, and more. I can't wait till next year. To get involved, visit http://www.siggraph.org/s2005 .
By Jeffrey Abouaf
When I arrived at Siggraph 2004 at the L.A. Convention Center August 8, the staffers boasted 42,000 registered. Maybe. Since I first began attending in '93, the L.A. conferences have always drawn the biggest crowds. This year, either the center grew or the show was smaller. But even in L.A., size doesn't always matter. I found presentations on social implementations more compelling than the many evolving technologies and techniques.
R.T. Taylor's talk on the history and future of VF/x at Discreet's Masters Class series should have been the keynote before thousands, not a lounge act for 15 or so. Dazzled in youth by Willis O'Brien's animation in the original King Kong, a '60s guerilla-psychedelic film-video artist, a long-time player in film effects (analog and digital), founding member of the Visual Effects Society and instructor at the Gnomon School, Taylor presented his personal take on the history of effects from before 1800 to present. The magician is our star, fittingly the first F/x artist.
This entertaining chronicle of technologies and ideas, one inspiring the other, always returns to the star that creates the magic. We relate to and want to be this person, and his/her historical milestones left to guide us. Taylor's final slide showed two same-size, old-style, electronic switch-boxes, one on top of the other (I don't think the position was relevant). The top one, labeled "Man," had one on-off switch; the bottom one, "Woman," had all kinds of buttons, dials and switches.
After the chuckles died down, Taylor suggested these represent two diverging F/x development paths: one set increasingly intelligent, capable, automatic and ubiquitous for use by everyone to communicate in all media; the other ever-more capable, complex, specialized, flexible, and cryptic for wizards on the edge. Earthshaking? Of course not. But I couldn't communicate Hamlet's meaning by saying “he dies at the end”. After this 90-minute presentation (I wished it had continued hours longer), this observation is the only possible result. We left reminded that, as artists and developers, our strategies lie along one of these paths, rarely along both.
My second find was Christian Bauer's talk on the World Summit Award, an initiative of the European Academy of Digital Media and the International Center for New Media to recognize, showcase and exhibit “the best in e-Content and Creativity” from contributors around the world. (http://www.wsis-award.org/). Their mission is to reach populations otherwise invisible and technologically disenfranchised:
A truly Global Information Society is one where all persons, without distinction, are empowered freely to create, receive, share and utilize information and knowledge for their economic, social, cultural and political development. The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), held in Geneva in December 2003 and in Tunis in 2005, offers a historical opportunity to realize this vision.
The World Summit Award, a global project, held in the framework of the WSIS, seeks to demonstrate the benefits of the Information Society in terms of the new qualities in content and applications, by selecting, presenting and promoting the best products from all over the world with a special emphasis on bridging the digital divide.
In its first year, the WSA was given an audience before the United Nations, which with other efforts resulted in 136 signing nations, each making a commitment to drawing content from their populations. (Compare this with Siggraph's current 124, after its many years). I don't expect signing heads of state in poorer countries to draw from all segments of their society. But then they aren't entirely responsible for soliciting participation. For example, there's a fine piece submitted by a group of Ugandan women--not mainstream, but special and unique. Surprisingly (or not), the U.S. is not yet a signatory.
Bauer (WSA project manager and member of the Siggraph International Committee '96-'04), is working to publicize WSA efforts in this country by organizing a road show for the 2003 competition in U.S. exhibition spaces. The many colleges and multimedia schools present this year have the facilities. I hope they and others in our industry step up to serve their students and communities by hosting this exhibit. The WSA was a small presence in the conference international center this year. I hope their egalitarian vision gains a bigger voice in our community.
To be sure, there were noteworthy product announcements, which I know will be discussed in Spectrum and many other publications. A few items caught my current mood and interest:
Discreet previewed 3DS Max 7, set for fall release. The company wowed the faithful with demos of new Normal Mapping and Pixel-based Camera Map Tools, Edit Poly Modifier and enhancements to Editable Poly, Paint Selections and Paint Deform, Skin Morph and Skin Wrap Deformer, and a Parameter Controller. There's a lot more: http://www4.discreet.com/Files/3dsmax/3dsmax_tech.pdf
Naturalmotion's endorphin 1.6, an update to its high-end dynamic motion synthesis tool, characterized by a sophisticated AI applied to bipedal characters. This enables physically accurate character simulations with controllable, believable secondary motion, without use of motion capture or key framing. Huh? Well, when a rag doll falls down a flight of stairs, it goes limp. A real character will roll up, protect its head, and fall other than just by the effects of collision and gravity. In another scene imported from 3ds max (without dynamics data), a character leaps to grab a helicopter, resulting not only in the character's physics driving his movements, but his impact on the helicopter effecting its trajectory, which in turn drives the character movement. Right now it's around $13,000. But look to see this driving development. Great demos: http://www.naturalmotion.com/pages/demos.htm
Luxology's announcement of a new 3D modeling product was on the floor this year as Modo. This may be the easiest and most advanced polygonal and subdivision surface modeler out there, and a joy to use in generating/updating morph targets. These veteran LightWave developers have come up with a little jewel: fast, easy, elegant, full-featured modeling and UVW mapping set. In its first release includes built-in export support of the .MA file (Maya's ascii file), the .lwo format, the OBJ format, as well as for material tags, blend shape data, UV safety. In addition, because Modo uses Perl for its scripting language, users are able to further expand its connectivity. http://www.luxology.com/modo/
eyeon software previewed Fusion 5, noteworthy for taking the 3D compositing environment one step further: not just composite planes transformable in 3D space, but allowing 2D objects to move along spline paths in XYZ space. For example, to have text deform on a circular path around a character's head, so it looks bent and is always part obscured by the head, you simply draw a circular spline oriented in 3D space and attach a text object to it. More at: http://www.eyeonline.com/Web/EyeonWeb/Products/teasers/fusion5/teaser_fusion5.aspx
I regret not having time to attend so many panels, papers and courses: they've usually told me the research going on and what to expect in the next six months. My take? The digital revolution in entertainment and communication is replaced by an evolutionary march toward broader, faster, cheaper, better. Siggraph '93 showcased Jurassic Park made on SGI machines with Alias, Softimage and proprietary software. Pixar made shorts and commercials. AutoDesk sold 3D Studio DOS 4, new with IK features. The Internet kiosk provided dedicated text-based terminals. Now almost every product is Wintel-based, digital technology dominates every phase of movie, broadcast, game VizSim and online activity, and I could connect to the net anywhere in the convention center with WiFi. Schools for targeted DCC training with veteran instructors are everywhere, and the discussion has moved to graduate degrees in VF/x.
A clear presentation of where we come from (for perspective), together with a notion that this is being delivered to more than the middle class and the techno-rich (a promise of more equal participation) offer some hope that the jewels of our industry might not just drive scientific advancement and commercial activity, but serve cultural appreciation and exchange.
Nevercenter Announces Silo for Mac and Silo 1.3
Nevercenter Ltd. Co. last week announced two advances to its $109 modeling program Silo: the port to Mac OS X 10.3 and the upcoming upgrade to Silo 1.3. Silo for Mac (currently version 1.25) will be released today. Silo 1.3, which will be available by the end of the month for both Mac and PC, adds the new Topology Brush.
The Mac port of Silo will have full feature parity with the PC version, and all users who own the PC version will have free access to a registration code for the Mac port. A single Silo license allows an individual to use Silo on up to three computers, which can be any combination of Macs and PCs. Future versions of Silo will be released simultaneously on Mac and PC.
Silo 1.3's new Topology Brush tool lets the user sketch freehand lines on top of an existing mesh and automatically create new geometry based on the sketched topology. Applications include "retopologizing" scan data, creating a low-res mesh from a high-res mesh and vice-versa, adding clothing, and reworking edge flow in problem areas.
Other new additions in Silo 1.3 include a slide tool, shortest-path selection, and drag-and-drop button placement for custom interfaces.
A 17-day trial version of the program is available at http://www.nevercenter.com
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