SIGGRAPH: It’s a Wrap
Barbara Robertson
August 6, 2013

SIGGRAPH: It’s a Wrap

OK, I missed a few things – the keynote with all the famous directors. The business forum on Sunday. Talks I wanted to hear. Technical papers presentations I wanted to see. Vendor booth demos I just couldn’t sit all the way through.

It's always that way with SIGGRAPH, trying to be everywhere all at once. Impossible, of course, so here are a few personal highlights, randomly chosen.

Digital Ira, a real-time, photoreal digital human character, any view in any lighting, performed during the Real-Time Live! theater. Video performance capture provided the real-time facial expressions even in tight close-ups. The project is a collaboration between Paul Debevec's group at USC ICT and Activision. And, it's scary good. We've come a long, long way from deGraf/Wahrman's Mike the Talking Head (1988). The USC ICT group also showed an amazing hologram in Emerging Technologies. The best yet.

The long line of people at the Pixar booth waiting to claim a RenderMan walking teapot continues to amaze me. This year, the 10th year Pixar has brought the collectibles to SIGGRAPH, the teapot looks like Mike from Monsters University. Trivial, you say? Think about this: The RenderMan group hands out 1,000 teapots a day, which made the Pixar booth the most popular on the show floor. Some people actually stood in line for an hour and a half.

This was a special year for RenderMan, the 25th anniversary, which turned the user group meeting into a celebration, with several people from the early RenderMan days joining in. I even spotted Steve Upstill, now living in New Zealand, who wrote "The RenderMan Companion," the introductory text for Pixar's photorealistic 3D rendering software way back then. And, there were announcements. Notably, RenderMan's Pro Server 18, and a collaboration between Pixar and the Foundry that will bring Katana and RenderMan together. Future releases of Katana will now include a full RenderMan license as standard, along with free Katana batch render licenses.

The venerable RenderMan has upstart competitors these days, though. Notably, Arnold and the Chaos Group's V-Ray. V-Ray now has a good track record in visual effects and a fast CUDA implementation. The Chaos Group made V-Ray a major presence at the show.

Production sessions:

Pacific Rim isn't the box-office hit the studios anticipated, but ILM's monster SIGGRAPH session packed a ballroom. The studio's new Creative Director John Knoll led the panel of awesomeness.

Victoria Alonso, Marvel Studio's exuberant executive vice president of visual effects and postproduction and the executive producer of Iron Man 3, brought Iron Man maquettes and gave a rousing introduction to the production session for that film, noting that 5,300 people worldwide worked on the film, and of that number, 1,200 - more than 20 percent - were visual effects artists. Now, if only the 17 VFX studios that worked on the film could, ahem, share 20 percent of the profits.  

Disney showed clips from its upcoming film Frozen, and the panel talked about the technology invented at the studio to create snow and ice - technology that resulted in technical papers presented during the conference.

Epic. So beautiful.

On the show floor:

Best exhibit - OptiTrack's skateboarder

New Cool - MCor Technogy's paper-based 3D printer; Dolby's 3D monitor, Face tracking at Vicon and Face Shift.

Most visibly absent - Autodesk. Although a SIGGRAPH sponsor, the vendor that owns most of the software used by the attendees - Maya, Mudbox, MotionBuilder, Softimage, Flame, Smoke, Autocad, 3ds Max, Alias…you get the picture - decided not to buy exhibit space. Instead, their products appeared in other booths. Why? They say they like virtual events better because they can reach more people all at once globally. The company did sponsor a user group party extraordinare - like the parties of old - where attendees saw hints of new life for Naiad, now called Bifrost, and a press breakfast. At the press breakfast, they announced support in Maya for Leap Motion's UI device, and that documentation for all products is moving to a creative common licensing model. None of which helps SIGGRAPH, of course.

A question:

Is it time for SIGGRAPH to woo graphics vendors, artists, designers, and researchers beyond those centered in entertainment and consumer products?

Outside the exhibit hall:

Upstairs at a table in the hallway, the guys from Fabric Engine showed a good idea for streamlining pipelines that could weave its way into studios.

Near Eco-coffee was a photo booth supported by Hewlett-Packard where you could take your picture with a giant pair of scissors and receive a 5 x 7 print in a minute. The purpose: Supporting the Cut-and-Paste competition, a kind of next-gen Forge! without any Vikings.

In the registration area, attendees could pick up "My first SIGGRAPH was in ___" ribbons. These were good ideas in case people didn't realize you are older than you look, or vice versa. And that leads to the best story.

Best story:

This is from Ken Perlin, master storyteller, professor of computer science in NYU's Media Research Lab, director of the Games for Learning Institute, SIGGRAPH Computer Graphics Achievement Award winner (2008), and, of course, the inventor of the legendary and now standard Perlin Noise in 1985 to create random naturalness for which he received a Technical Achievement Award in 1997. Despite all this, Ken looks like he's only about 35 years old.

I walked with him around the show floor for a short while and saw people's faces light up when they recognized him - or saw his name on his badge. I said it was fun to hang out with someone famous. He laughed and told me this story: He was at a party recently when a young woman standing nearby read his name tag. She looked at him and asked, "How does it feel to be named after an algorithm?"

Last thought:

Although the reported numbers are higher than other SIGGRAPH conferences held outside Los Angeles, albeit not far from LA, I thought attendance was light. And then I went to the third floor where people crowded the hallways between technical sessions and talks. That's where the buzz was. Just in case you missed it.

'Til next year.