Who’s the Fairest of Them All?
Issue: Volume 35 Issue 4 June/July 2012

Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

While 2012 is SIGGRAPH’s 39th birthday, her origins go back much further.

In 1967 and 1968, Andy van Dam (Brown University) and Sam Matsa (head of IBM’s New York Scientific Center), presented one-day ACM Professional Development seminars on Interactive Computer Graphics, and held them in multiple places in the US and in several countries in Western Europe. Van Dam taught the hardware and software side, and Matsa taught applications. The seminars were popular, attracting 40 or 50 people per session, and showed the growing interest in computer graphics. That led Matsa and van Dam to petition ACM to form a SICGRAPH (Special Interest Committee on Computer Graphics), the forerunner of SIGGRAPH.

SICs were a sort of Special Interest Group (SIG) on training wheels. However, ACM was hesitant about the idea of creating the SIC for CG and told van Dam he would have to collect at least 30 signatures on a petition to get it sanctioned. He set out to do that and had a little difficulty collecting them since there were very few people specializing in interactive (as opposed to plotter) graphics at that time. Nevertheless, he succeeded, and he and Matsa became the co-founders of SICGRAPH in 1968.

Professionals in computer graphics, both those in industry and the few in universities, wanted recognition for their work, the same way other computing disciplines were recognized. One thing needed was elected, rather than appointed, officers. The reason that the SIC moved to being a SIG was that ACM was phasing out the SICs, which were financially supported by ACM proper, and moving them into being SIGs, which had their own budgets and funding. Going from SICGRAPH to SIGGRAPH was primarily keeping up with the times.

Jon Meads (at Tektronix then) drafted the first set of bylaws, and in so doing, officially named the organization “SIGGRAPH.” So Meads is credited as the founder of SIGGRAPH. Meads and Bob Schiffman (a professor at the University of Colorado who later became the SIGGRAPH 1974 chair) picked Boulder, Colorado, for the first annual SIGGRAPH conference; the first elected chair was Bob Dunn. Boulder was selected because that was home to the University of Colorado, which, thanks to Schiffman’s efforts, paid for the conference. Fortunately, there were enough attendees that the university made out well.

Attendance was a surprising 600 people, all showing great enthusiasm for the subject. That first year there were no formal proceedings published (the papers presented there eventually found a home in a journal on computer graphics from Pergammon Press). The next two conferences (Bowling Green, Ohio, and then Philadelphia) were only moderately successful; however, the 1977 conference held at the Hyatt in San Jose, California, was a resounding success, and that established SIGGRAPH as an important event in the eyes of the community. One of the reasons San Jose was a success: It was the first SIGGRAPH to have formal commercial exhibits. Many people think of it as the first SIGGRAPH.

Many years and successful SIGGRAPH conferences later, the “Proceedings of the Conference” remains an accepted scholarly journal for the publication of technical contributions—and in which budding computer graphics scientists compete for acceptance.

Counting Boulder in ’74 as the first, then the 40th SIGGRAPH will be in 2013. Since its inception, SIGGRAPH has been the launching platform for memorable companies, products, ideas, and people—too numerous to mention them all (to list them even briefly would fill two or more issues of Computer Graphics World).

One of the things not introduced at SIGGRAPH, but which has been a part of it for 20-plus years, has been OpenGL. It’s safe to say not many things have been so important, long lasting, or as broadly significant to the industry as OpenGL. OpenGL, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, has its own rich history.

OpenGL Turns 20
By the early 1990s, Silicon Graphics (SGI) was a leader in 3D graphics for workstations. Part of its success was due to the IRIS GL API, designed in 1985 by a group led by Jim Clark (the founder of SGI). By 1987, Kurt Akeley was deeply involved and extended IRIS GL to support the upcoming GT and GTX graphics systems. It was considered state-of-the-art and became the de facto industry standard, overshadowing the open-standards-based PHIGS. This was because IRIS GL was easier to use, and because it supported immediate mode rendering, which gave it a considerable speed advantage.

Until the second generation of SGI’s Onyx Reality Engine machines, the company only offered access to its high-performance 3D graphics subsystems through its proprietary API, IRIS GL. However, as more features were added over the years, IRIS GL became harder to maintain and awkward to use.

Akeley and Mark Segal actually started developing what would become OpenGL within the company in 1989. Later, SGI removed its proprietary code, reworked various system calls, and partnered with Microsoft to co-develop (what became) OpenGL in 1990 to early 1991. The ARB (the OpenGL Architecture Review Board) was organized in early 1992. The original ARB members were: Compaq, DEC, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and SGI. Later, Evans & Sutherland, Intergraph, Sun, and HP joined. (Microsoft, an original voting member, left in March 2003.) On  June 30, 1992, the ARB released Version 1.0 of OpenGL, and a specification and industry standard was born.

OpenGL was a derivative of GL, SGI’s initially proprietary library. It was created independently from, and in competition with, SIGGRAPH and ANSI/ISO “standards,” such as Core, PHIGS, PHIGS+ (which van Dam convened and chaired), and GKS, the European derivative of Core.

The ARB agreement was unique but straightforward: SGI would develop the initial specification of OpenGL with input from the other ARB members, and then turn the specification over to the ARB for ongoing development, empowering each of the members representing the graphics community at the time with an equal vote. The idea was to avoid slowing things down with “design by committee” for the initial specification, then to move to design with ongoing input from the community.

The OpenGL ARB governs the future of OpenGL, proposing and approving changes to the specification, new releases, and conformance testing. This was a breakthrough in thinking, and SGI has been praised by the industry ever since for its enlightened (if somewhat self-serving) move. Looking back, it worked quite well, as OpenGL went on to become the most widely adopted 2D and 3D graphics API in the industry, bringing thousands of applications to a wide variety of computer platforms.

On September 6, 2006, the ARB transferred responsibility for the development and maintenances of OpenGL to the Khronos Group, the open-standards organization started in 2000. The members attending the meeting and agreeing to that transfer were: Apple, ATI, Dell, Giquile, HI Corp., IBM, Intel, Matrox, Nvidia, Sony, Sun, and Jon Leech, who used to be the SGI representative.

This year at SIGGRAPH, the Khronos Group is celebrating OpenGL’s 20th anniversary. Akeley, considered by most to be the father of OpenGL, is talking on these subjects at the SIGGRAPH Pioneer’s reception and at the Khronos gathering.

When you walk around SIGGRAPH today, you can see that what was true then is still true now—any visual computing application can exploit high-quality, high-performance OpenGL capabilities. These capabilities enable developers globally and in diverse markets, such as broadcasting, CAD/CAM/CAE, entertainment, medical imaging, and virtual reality, to produce and display incredibly compelling 2D and 3D graphics. Indeed, where would computer graphics be without OpenGL?
So what’s the hottest thing at SIGGRAPH?
Well it’s SIGGRAPH herself, of course! She shares a birthday with the very fair Penelope Cruz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Amber Valletta, and at age 39, we think the mother of our little village is aging very well. n

Jon Peddie is president of Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon-CA-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia that also publishes JPR’s “TechWatch.” He can be reached at jon@jonpeddie.com.