SIGGRAPH Thinks Beyond the In-Person Experience
Karen Moltenbrey
June 26, 2020

SIGGRAPH Thinks Beyond the In-Person Experience

After 46 years, you would think that the SIGGRAPH group has pretty much seen it all. Not so when it came to this year’s event, the 47th. For the first time, SIGGRAPH will be taking its annual trade show and conference on computer graphics and interactive techniques to the virtual realm, as a result of COVID-19. The event, scheduled for mid-July in Washington, DC, has been moved to August, giving the show organizers time to shift to the virtual platform.

Recently, CGW Chief Editor Karen Moltenbrey discussed the new plans with SIGGRAPH 2020 Chair Kristy Pron, Media Arts and Pipeline Developer for Walt Disney Imagineering. 

This was obviously not what everyone had envisioned for SIGGRAPH 2020 a year ago.
Not at all.

When did you realize the format would have to change?
Back in March, we didn't know that the pandemic was going to be like this. We're thinking, Oh, we got plenty of time. You know, it'll clear up and we'll just be on-site in July. And then as things started to progress in DC and we saw the potential that the Convention Center would turn into a hospital care center, we were kind of on our toes waiting to see. And then when that did happen, we figured there's no way we could find another space in such a short amount of time that could hold us.

So, we just figured it was safer to go virtual, and we seem to be right about that decision.

What is the virtual plan?
We're going to be a two-week conference this year. We're going to open up on August 17, where we're going to have a week of on-demand presentations. Because there's usually so much content and attendees spend 12 hours or 15 hours a day at the [week-long] conference, we wanted to give them a chance to do that at their own pace, on their own schedule. We know that in a virtual environment, there's fatigue – sitting fatigue and viewing fatigue – and we don't want to cause that for people. So, we made SIGGRAPH 2020 two weeks.

So, not everything will come out the first week. But we'll have Technical Papers and some Talks. And then the second week, we're going to have scheduled Sessions and do more live question-and-answer sessions, more chance for the community to talk together in-person. So, that spreads it out a little bit and makes it a little bit easier to get through all of the content.

We have about 430 hours of content to try to figure out how to schedule. (Content will be available August 28 through October 27.)

How did you even begin to figure this out?
Our group sat down, and before we chose any platforms or anything like that, we looked at how much content we had and how we could schedule it. If we were to normally schedule this in an in-person conference, we'd lay out the schedule, put all the rooms together…. But, we knew we couldn’t do that. Once we saw how much content there was, we knew there was no way we could do this in a week.

The good thing is, there's no rules to a virtual conference. No one says you can't do it for two weeks. That seems like a good amount of time. It's not too long, it's not too short. And people will have a chance to just kind of do it at their own pace or they can binge watch everything.

Portions will be precorded?

We have both prerecorded and live portions. Anything that runs live will get recorded and people can still see it if they missed it. The only thing that isn't recorded per se is the Computer Animation Festival. That's going to happen, and we're going to have it streamed. Folks will be able to actually input a code to unlock it and watch it, and it'll be open for 48 hours. Once the conference is officially over, the content will be available on the platform for 60 days.

How are attendees going to connect to the conference?
So we have a platform and it's called Hubb ( It's going to link off of the SIGGRAPH 2020. (Hubb specializes in personalized participant experiences for virtual, hybrid, or in-person events.)

How much is registration for the virtual conference?
We actually changed the name of the passes, and they cost less than the original passes. (Pricing will be available shortly.) For folks who had already registered, we are giving them the option for a refund or they can convert what they paid to the new pricing structure, which is less expensive. That’s because there are different [opportunities] at the in-person conference – for instance, the Experience Hall where you can demo content physically. We realize some people may not have headsets to demo some of the content.

(Those who already purchased their passes for the in-person conference can also donate the difference back to SIGGRAPH, which is a nonprofit.)

Is there anything we are used to seeing at SIGGRAPH that you just can't do virtually this year?

We're still working on how to do immersive in the VR Theater. It's going to happen. It just may not happen with the headset. Typically the VR Theater is one show, though we may have to split it up into individual pieces. We're trying to get those onto different platforms that attendees can actually download and watch if they have a headset. But we know that not everybody has a headset. So, we're offering kind of more like a [snapshot] of what the video would look like and then talk to the contributors.

Everything else at SIGGRAPH is going to happen in some way, shape, or form. We've got the Appy Hour, CAF, Real-Time Live, Production Sessions, Talks, Frontier Talks. And Real-Time Live will be live. We're still working on some sort of a reception. It won't be a regular reception like we're used to, but we're working through ideas. I can't really think of anything that we're not doing. We have a keynote. I haven't announced him yet, but we have a keynote.

The Technical Papers will be an inverted model. We're releasing the Technical Papers a week early so that you can watch them. And then there's a 30-minute question and answer before the speakers the next week. The Technical Papers community thought that was really great because now you actually have a little bit more time to talk to the papers' contributors and they can start riffing off of each other. It’s a completely different experience. Who knows, maybe this format will be something to look at for the next few years.

For Emerging Technologies, we’re going to have them demo what their space would be, and then offer a chance for them to give a 15-minute talk with a question and answer. And any of the contributors, if they were accepted, we will still recognize that they were accepted, even if they are unable to present anything. We know that there's some challenges, especially if their university or studio is closed and they can't get in and get their content.

Wow. I'm impressed. At one point, were you planning two different conferences – one in-person and the other virtual?
We did. We actually had two budgets going. So in February, when we saw things started coming, we started to look at our budget and thought, okay, maybe we need to scale back a little bit. Because we were still thinking there's an in-person conference, 100 percent. And then as we saw kind of the things happening almost weekly, we needed to start thinking about this other budget, the virtual budget.

So I think it was probably in early April that we were thinking we need to really seriously consider going virtual. Like. There was still that tiny bit of hope, and then the Convention Center cancelled on us. Then we had to figure out how much we could afford to do and still put this conference on – because it's also going to affect the next coming years. We also had to look at when you run something virtually, how that impacts the next year.

Do you think this will affect attendance and the conference structure for next year?
I think the draw that brings you to an in-person conference is getting together to see your peers. That's one of the things that I love about SIGGRAPH. Also, the show is in LA, and LA is always a big draw. We plan to still have a virtual component next year. We actually initially planned that this year. There was going to be a companion version to the in-person conference that we were going to offer for folks who didn't come to DC.

Will people feel less connected to the industry now that the conference is virtual?
I don't think so. Our community likes to talk to one another, and they're finding ways around it. There's like Zoom parties and stuff, and I've seen it happening, and people are talking more on Facebook. People are finding a way. And even though you're home, I think people will connect over Zoom and have a cocktail and discuss rendering.

What about the student volunteers?
We're offering the student volunteers who aged out this year, a chance to come back and apply next year, so that they won't be ineligible. They still have to go through the process and everything, but we wanted to give that chance to them. This year, we're still trying to figure out how we can utilize them because typically we have over 400 student volunteers.

We know that all of these students really, really enjoy the chance to volunteer there, to learn. We're trying to think about different ways of offering kind of like a mentorship option so that they can kind of talk to someone in the industry, or even if it's some of the subcommittee members or committee members. I was a student volunteer. It was an incredible experience for me. And it stinks that we can't offer that in person for them, but we're still trying to figure out a way to connect with them and engage them.

What about the vendors, their booth spaces on the show floor?

We do have a virtual exhibit. So the platform that we use, Hubb, has a really nice way to incorporate exhibitors. There will be a space that attendees can go in. We're still trying to figure out how that schedule looks because normally in an in-person conference, it's open two days, but we don't really need to do that this year. We kind of want to work off the schedule of the exhibitors, whatever time they want to be involved within their space. They'll still have Exhibitor Tech-Talk options. They'll be able to have breakout rooms. We're still trying to work a job fair, too, with the exhibitors, but we plan to still have an exhibit hall virtually.

What is the biggest regret or disappointment that you have over this whole thing?
Not being there in-person. One of the things I was hoping to do this year, because I work for Disney and it's all about the guest experience and the story, is to make the Convention Center into eye candy. I wanted it to be more of an experience for them, more of a story. But that's okay because now we can kind of control the story a little bit virtually.

What was the most difficult aspect of turning this in-person conference virtual?

We all know how to put on a physical conference. We know it like the backs of our hands. We know our deadlines and everything like that. With the virtual conference, everything is completely different. I think one of the hardest things was just nailing down the platform because we didn't have a lot of time. It was April and we were still shooting for the July dates.

As we were trying to each some of the platform vendors –every other conference was also converting – we discovered this was not going to happen as fast as we think it would happen.

After all this, did you change the theme of this year’s conference?

Not at all because it works really well. The idea of Think Beyond originally was because we were in a new city (DC) and we wanted to engage kind of new communities, that we wanted people to think beyond their familiar and start thinking past that and start engaging things like automotive and more education and kind of really use the fact that we are somewhere else to try to bring in new folks. So when we turned virtual, the idea of Think Beyond still works to that, but now you think beyond of what you know of an in-person conference to now a completely different type of experience.