August 27, 2008

SIGGRAPH Musings from CGW long-time contributing editor George Maestri

The theme of this year’s Siggraph was “evolve” and the show certainly has evolved.  In some ways this evolution was also a consolidation.  Many of the art and technology exhibits, which previously had been housed in their own space, now were on the trade show floor.  In some ways, this was a welcome change because you could easily take a break from the show to look at art, but this ‘evolution’ also highlighted the evolution of the CG industry.  The trade show was noticeably smaller, mostly because of consolidation in the major software companies.  In the past few years, Autodesk has bought a number of major companies, and this year was no exception with their purchase of RealVis. 

Despite the consolidations, there was a lot of new stuff to be seen and some exciting technologies.  Probably the most talked about item was Softimage’s announcement Softimage 7 with ICE, an interactive creative environment that allows users to create custom tools interactively.  While this sort of technology has been around for a long time in packages like Houdini and Maya, Softimage did an excellent job on the interface, making it very intuitive.

Another big trend was the coming wave of 3D movies set to hit theaters in the next few years.  Autodesk was on point with new tools for Maya and Toxic to help studios create full 3D pipelines.  One of the thorniest issues with producing a 3D movie is the compositing, which has to happen in stereo, so when a process is applied to the right eye image, the same process gets applied to the left as well.  Most compositing software is still wired for mono, so to speak, so Toxic gets a jump on the competition. 

Other new Autodesk tools include much better connectivity with Mudbox and Autodesk’s trio of 3D authoring programs (Maya, 3ds Max, and Motionbuilder) to utilize normal mapping for high quality rendering of Mudbox generated meshes.

On the hardware side, nVidia was showing new Quadro graphics cards that were bigger and better than last years graphics cards.  One of the more interesting devices were the new notebooks and laptops, particularly the Lenovo W700, a behemoth the stretches the definition of the word “laptop,” includes a graphics card with a gigabyte of RAM, two disk drives and a little Wacom drawing tablet.  Not for the timid or weak shouldered.  Not to be outdone, ATI was showing updated versions of their FirePro cards. 

Rendering also seems to be another area of growth. A n umber of companies were showed advanced solutions.  Luxology demonstrated Modo, which is their high end modeling and rendering package by showing the speed at which high end renderings could be created interactively.  They’ve licensed this technology to SolidWorks and Bentley, which delivers this advanced technology to the design and architecture communities.

Motion capture again showed a lot of progress.  Last year, Organic Motion showed a markerless motion capture for the body, and this year Image Metrics was showing markerless facial motion capture that can realistically drive a 3D face from a simple video.  Prices are also coming down, Natural Point’s Optitrack system is now selling a six camera optical system for $5,000. 

The computer animation festival also saw some evolution.  Gone was the large Electronic Theater show and the hard to obtain tickets.  In it’s place was more of an open film festival that made it much easier to view the films as well as see panels on the filmmaking process.  On of my favorites was the Irreverent History of Character Animation, which went of animation from the beginning and tied a lot of classic animation techniques to modern technology.

Another great little area was The Studio, where people can get hands on use of high-end equipment, such as advanced workstations, software, 3D printers and ultrawide inkjet printers.  One of the most interesting little gadgets was the Gigapan, which is a robotic camera mount that sells for a few hundred dollars and allows a small point and shoot camera to automatically photograph panoramas that contain billions of pixels.  A Gigapan shot of Yosemite Valley was on display in the lobby and it was approximately 6 feet high, 30 feet long, and incredibly detailed.  Some of these images are shown on the website, and are pretty amazing, particularly considering many were shot with off the shelf point and shoot cameras.

The technical papers had a lot of interesting topics.  One of the papers showed how faces could be automatically substituted on still images, allowing for companies like Google to replace faces on applications such as street view, averting some privacy implications.  A similar paper showed how still photographs of people’s faces could be automatically made more attractive, making insecure movie stars and online dating sites salivate the prospect of a new ‘photo enhancement’ tool. 

Of course, Siggraph is also about the nightlife.  There were a few great parties this year, most notably the Softimage party, which included a concert by Vanilla Ice (in honor of Softimage’s ICE technology, I suppose.)  With a distinctly Victorian bent, Luxology’s Steampunk Speakeasy party was held in the uber-swank Edison lounge, a Steampunk themed venue deep underneath the downtown LA arts district. 

Next year, Siggraph is in New Orleans.  The last time Siggraph was there was in 2000, and despite the heat, it was great show.  Hopefully next year will be just as good.