Looking for SIGGRAPH at a R-E-A-L-L-Y B-I-G Trade Show a Special Report to Spectrum by Jeffrey Abouaf

Around 32,210 of the faithful (official attendance figure) trekked to the Orlando Convention Center for the 25th annual SIGGRAPH Conference, July 18-24. As anticipated, approximately 350 2D and 3D hardware and software companies were there to demonstrate their latest or announce new technologies/strategies. The exhibits occupied two very large halls, separated by a large gallery containing static and interactive artworks. Concurrently, attendees had SIGGRAPH courses, papers, panels, Electronic Theater, user group and SIG meetings open to all, as well as the other intermingling you'd expect at a big conference. Of course it's too much, so I focused on developments in 3D animation/production. Still too much.

This was the show for Maya, Alias|Wavefront's long-awaited character animation system. First announced at SIGGRAPH 1995, Maya promised a new architecture, interface and way of working, which will eventually subsume their main product, Power Animator 8. (A|W currently plans no upgrade of Power Animator beyond version 9.) Maya shipped on the Irix platform in January, and on NT only three weeks before the show. As part of Maya's development, A|W produced Chris' Landreth's "Bingo," a short character animation that debuted at SIGGRAPH as the finale to this year's Electronic Theater (see below). Bingo shirts seemed to be everywhere, the making of Bingo was a major presentation on their main stage, and Maya was being demonstrated and extolled at many other booths, including IBM's.

In addition to Maya for NT, A|W showed Maya Live, a camera-tracking module, and Maya Cloth, a forthcoming cloth-simulation plug-in. Maya Cloth uses a tailor's metaphor--a "pattern"--to model clothing. Once sized and cut to shape, the "cloth" panels are then "seamed" together to form a garment. The software appears to know how to fit the garment to the character. More importantly, the fitted garment *behaves* like cloth on a character. The technology behind this was presented as part of a full-day course on clothing (course notes available from ACM: visit http://www.siggraph.org/home.html).

Kinetix's most significant product releases--3DS MAX 2.5, 3DS VIZ 2.0, and Character Studio 2.0--occurred in May and June. At NAB in April, Discreet Logic announced its strategic partnering with Kinetix to develop paint* and effect* to work with MAX. These programs blossomed in the last few months, and at Devcon '98, their developer's conference held the day before SIGGRAPH, Kinetix explained how VIZ represents a new strategic direction for MAX products: 3DS VIZ 2.0 departs from MAX to include features not available in MAX and operates from a reduced version of the MAX core.

Expect this divergence to widen over time. (Prior to the release of 2.5, Kinetix formally acquired the MAX technology from its original development team, the Yost Group. The Yost Group remains active in MAX's future, both philosophically and as developers). Expect to see other products emerge based upon the MAX core technology: Kinetix announced it will begin OEM licensing of the MAX technology to other developers for new products based on the MAX core. And beginning with Release 2.0, they opened up MAX's UI with a front-end plug-in. This means a developer can create an entirely different interface, look and feel, all running atop the MAX engine. MAX product manager Phil Miller indicated Kinetix had received many proposals for new MAX-based directions and products that they couldn't accommodate, ranging from low-end dedicated visualization systems to highly specialized specific uses in manufacturing or entertainment.

On the exhibit floor, Kinetix conducted the first-ever virtual fashion show, showcasing the work of Thierry Mugler. REM Infographica's production studio in Madrid, Spain, used Character Studio 2.0 and a Cloth Reyes 3.0 beta (their plug-in for 3DS MAX R2.5), to (1) import motion capture data of a runway model, (2) combine it with their hand-modeled reproduction of the dress, (3) clothe the model in the virtual garment and (4) assign cloth behaviors to the dress so it moved much like the original, and (5) integrate the whole piece in a virtual set. There was a live model wearing the original garment who walked across the stage for comparison. Since different models were used for the animation and for the live performance, I could not be certain how much of the difference was due to data vs. simulation.

Many MAX plug-in developers were present at either the Kinetix booth or their own. Driftwood showed Seascape, an ocean-generating plug-in for very large ocean scene, which progressively simplifies or tessellates scene geometry based on its distance from the camera. Arete Image Software, creators of the Softimage water effects plug-in used in Titanic's ocean shots, indicated it will port the plug-in to MAX. Animation Science, known for Outburst, announced Rampage, a crowd-movement system for MAX, (still in beta). Lambsoft, perhaps best known for their facial morphing software, "Smirk," showed Pro Motion, a high-end motion-capture/editing package for importing and editing magnetic or optical mocap data for character animation in MAX (see http://www.lambsoft.com).

Rodin, an H-Spline modeling solution for MAX, was demonstrated at the Digimation booth. Unlike NURBS, H-Splines are designed to allow multiple LOD versions to be generated from a single object and to permit selective detailing of a mesh surface. By contrast, DaVinci 3D, shown in the same booth, combines mesh and spline qualities in modeling "membrane" surfaces. Also in the modeling REM Infographica showed Surf Reyes, a MAX modeling modifier that selectively subdivides the mesh for detailing, similar to what Pixar has done with subdivided meshes.

Softimage created a stir with their introduction of Digital Studio 2.0 (Softimage|DS2), of Softimage|3D 3.8, and previews of Twister (for release at the end of Q4 '98) and Sumatra (for release Q2 or 3 '99). Twister is the code name for Mental Ray 2.0, which will include caustic effects, and will be part of Sumatra. Sumatra is the next generation of the 3D product, which will likely debut at next year's SIGGRAPH. Softimage presented these technologies at their user group with 1,800 in attendance, and again on the exhibit floor. Even though they had ILM, Digital Domain, Tippett Studios, and Centropolis presenting the best of this year's films making use of Softimage, I was most impressed with a simulated video production demo using two networked workstations, one running an alpha of Sumatra ("3D") and the other Digital Studio 2.0 ("DS2").

Sumatra uses "non-linear animation," treating a motion sequence much like a video clip in an editing environment: it can be trimmed, layered, and composited. The DS2 artist asked the 3D artist to re-render the character's arm movement with motion blur and provide a new piece of scene geometry, each of which the 3D station transferred across the network as a "clip" usable in the other environment. Simultaneously the 3D artist asked for an animated texture map for the geometry he just created - this was created in DS2 and shipped to 3D. Although Softimage is not alone in layering or combining movements (i.e. Kinetix Character Studio 2.0 features layering and connecting motions, and Discrete Logic's Paint supports animated 2D and 3D paint across interoperable environments), Softimage is apparently the first to attempt to application-wide integration between the 3D and 2D workspace. Just a demo, but it raises the bar.

Caligari showed a beta of trueSpace 4, available in Q4 at $595.00. This version will include an improved interface, dual processor support on NT, NURBS modeling (it already has metaballs, splines and polygonal modeling), and radiosity rendering. The radiosity engine was written by Lightworks, using the same technology as in RadioRay for 3DS MAX

In the real-time 3D area, MultiGen showed their Terrain Pro and Road Pro modules for Creator NT. The former can read satellite image data, and "tile" large terrain databases for real-time presentation. For example, a flight simulation could accurately include the entire New England area, and be accurate in the placement of trees, rivers, mountains, etc. Road Pro enables road placement--complete with pavement, curbs, shoulder, and light poles--on a real landscape. All that's required is creating a spline and few control points. This introduction makes all MultiGen's product features on Irix available on the NT platform.

Nichimen Graphics showed a technology demonstration of their Murai animation environment, expected Q4 '98. Optimized for real-time character animation, this demo showed how an articulated human IK skeleton could be made to run toward a wall, jump up and off the wall to grab a trapeze, flip and dismount using a total of eight (!) keyframes.

Pixar announced Renderman for NT. This requires programming a user interface, (which has been done for Maya). I was told there's a free MAX plug-in that allows users to access Renderman NT as an alternative to the default Scanline renderer. However, this does not begin to take advantage of the product's primary capabilities, developing shaders for various products.

VRML is alive and will be doing well, at least according to the faithful and visionaries. Platinum Technologies, who acquired VREAM 1 1/2 years ago, and InterVista shortly before SIGGRAPH, announced it has purchased the assets of Cosmo Software, which closed its doors 10 days before the conference. This will insure VRML browser compatibility, and further Platinum's strategy for networked 3D visualization. Approximately 1,500 attended the VRML Demo SIG. It appears the Java 3D API will be integrated into VRML. Expect other technologies and capabilities to be build into the file spec.

The 3D accelerator hardware wars intensified at the conference. Companies showing 3DLab's Glint GMX and Gamma chipsets were out in force, most notably Elsa with a single processor version with optimized 3DS MAX display drivers, and STB (maker of the Symmetric line of 3D cards) showing a dual-processor version of the Glint GMX, supporting 96MB RAM, estimated price $2,200.00. Just before SIGGRAPH, 3DLabs acquired Dynamic Pictures (makers of the Oxygen chip), and will use this technology for midrange cards between the consumer Permedia 2 and 3 lines and the high-end Glint GMX line. Diamond Multimedia showed the Fire GL 5000, their proprietary, faster version of the Fire GL 4000 based on Evans and Sutherland technology and the Mitsubishi chipset. And Intergraph announced their new "Wildcat" technology, which they say will increase video display speeds between five and 10 times that currently available. They expect to ship the first card in December 1998. It will be available standalone with one processor and 64 Mb RAM, and will rate at least 206 CDRS (more than twice their fastest to date), at $2995. They expect to follow this with dual- and quad-processor versions, with RAM and price point unspecified.

One helluva trade show. Loved it, and I'll be back. About SIGGRAPH '98 ... At the ceremony commemorating this 25th conference, the speaker began "How many SIGGRAPH attendees does it take to screw in a light bulb? Three. Once to screw in the bulb and two to talk about how much better it was in years past." Laughter. But as I talked with many "old-timers," I heard a consistent observation of how emphasis has shifted from sharing technology to companies competing over things proprietary. There is some evidence: The full-day clothing course covered the mathematics underlying Alias|Wavefront's new cloth simulation, but didn't disclose enough to tell how to reproduce it. Likewise, the Rendering session included a basic description of rendering caustics, but not enough to let you know how it is implemented in Softimage's Twister. Our times--Industrial Evolution, perhaps. We can't blame SIGGRAPH for that. But we should be "mad as hell" over this year's Electronic Theater: Bingo!

Bingo is based on a play entitled "Disregard this Play," originally written and performed by the "neo-futurists" theater group of Chicago. It runs about 5 1/2 minutes, and was adapted for animation by Chris Landreth, in-house senior animator at Alias|Wavefront. The project served as a production test for Maya. The character's voices were recorded in performance ensemble. Landreth designed animated characters for each part, as well as an elaborate set for the action. The piece took 19 months and represents a major event in 3D animation. The press took notice: Characters from Bingo appeared on the cover of all major industry 3D publications in time for SIGGRAPH. Bingo shirts were everywhere during the conference. Those of us following the project eagerly anticipated its debut at SIGGRAPH '98, partly for the technology, but mostly for the unique, serious artistry and vision Landreth continually brings to animation at SIGGRAPH, e.g., The Listener (1991), Franz K (1993) and The End (1995, nominated for an Oscar that year).

Approximately a month ago the Electronic Theater informed Landreth they would edit Bingo for length. They literally cut the piece in half - after the exit of the "Balloon Girl" and before the entrance of the "Money Guy." Since the point of the piece involves now-missing characters and is revealed in the final shot, editing it in this manner destroys the story and the entire point of the play. All that remains are some animated characters doing something that leads to who knows what. And we don't know why. Those attending the Electronic Theater saw that Landreth is good at modeling, texturing and animation, and that Maya is a good tool. But the artwork makes no sense. If you spend $60.00 to purchase the Electronic Theater Video, you can see Bingo in its entirety. On the show floor, and at their press conference, Alias|Wavefront showed the entire piece as the "director's cut."

Landreth says ET explained they cut the second part of the animation because it was "dark." If true (I was unable to reach the decision makers for comment), this edit was based someone's personal aesthetic; or worse, it reflects a misplaced political correctness that has no place at SIGGRAPH. Everyone I spoke to about this was angry, to say the least, and couldn't understand the rationale for cutting the last 2 1/2 minutes of the show's finale.

True, ET edits submissions from full-length films, as evidenced by selected shots from Titanic. But this is entirely different. Note that Pixar's Geri's Game was shown in its entirety. Serious artwork in the form of a short animation cannot be edited without changing its meaning, vision and impact. Cutting Bingo before the "Money Guy" character enters for allegedly being "dark" requires explanation, apology, and a commitment to preventing recurrence. Judge artwork on quality, not content. To bring the point home, contrast this with content in this year's Animation Theater: Two simple, light, upbeat cartoons, without social comment, showed characters urinating and drinking urine, and one character partially stuck up a bear's ass, kicking his displeasure as the bear walks away. Humorous? Well...but uncut.

Whether or not Bingo gains notoriety or cult status by this is beside the point. I submit that no one associated with the Electronic Theater is *qualified* to edit a piece like Bingo. To do so injects censorship, threatening everything SIGGRAPH purports to stand for, and personally threatening me and any other artist connected with the digital arts. Spectrum