me on the last day outside the convention centermauricio goes to siggraph 2003

The SIGGRAPH 2003 computer graphics conference was held in San Diego last week, July 27-31. Here are my impressions of the conference, divided into some relevant sections. You can see captions for the photos by leaving the mouse cursor over each one. For reference, I am a software engineer / programmer by profession, but I can't resist seeing the other "cool stuff" at the conference. I started going to SIGGRAPH in 1999.

Programmable Graphics Hardware

Similar to last year in San Antonio, a big topic at SIGGRAPH was real-time programmable shading on graphics cards, i.e. vertex and pixel shaders. The "Real-Time Shading" course returned for another year, and there was a course on the recently finalized OpenGL high-level shading language, GLslang. A recurring theme throughout these and other courses (such as the excellent "Simulating Nature" course) was how programmable hardware is making it possible to do things at interactive frame rates that simply were not feasible before. The most visible application is, of course, "cinematic computing," the idea of having film-quality computer graphics in real-time, something that NVIDIA has been going on about since they announced the GeForceFX graphics chipset.

the NVIDIA booth, prominently showing off DawnA less visible application is using GPUs to perform more general computations that were normally done on CPUs, such as fast Fourier transform. There was a course on this topic alone, called "Interactive Geometric and Scientific Computations Using Graphics Hardware" (which I did not have time to attend) as well as some papers in the SIGGRAPH proceedings. I currently don't have much interest in those applications, because I just want to make "pretty pictures," but I do applaud the efforts of these researchers in using this new hardware in unconventional ways.

On the last day of the conference, I attended a hands-on introduction to the Cg high-level shading language, presented by NVIDIA. This was actually more fun than I thought it would be, because the lab system they had gave the programmer immediate visual feedback... again, it's all about the pretty pictures. However, I am not so sure that Cg will succeed as a high-level shading language: in the real-time shading course, even NVIDIA admitted that they recommend using Microsoft's HLSL language for DirectX applications. Now that the OpenGL language has been finalized, where does that leave Cg? For applications that must use the same shaders for both OpenGL and DirectX rendering, Cg may make sense, but that would be a small slice of the pie.

Game Development

In the past few years, the "game development" profession has been getting a lot of attention: just look at the number of programs popping up at colleges around the country and related stories in the news. There is a tremendous amount of interest there, and SIGGRAPH is no different. It seems that all the software vendors and book publishers now have a game development story, whereas before it was just about visual effects for film. In any case, I am not one to ignore such trends, so...

I went to a special session on Sunday night called "Behind the Game: Deconstructing the Successes of 2002" where representatives from game development companies talked about how three successful games were created. The games discussed were Neverwinter Nights, Splinter Cell, and Sly Cooper. I found this session very entertaining, with just the right amount of information. For example, John Bible from Bioware talked about how the Neverwinter Nights graphics engine had to meet certain unique requirements, such as permitting player-made modifications.

I also attended the Game Developers BOF (birds-of-a-feather meeting) on Monday at the Marriott hotel. This was a very unstructured meeting held in a rather small room for the huge number of people that showed up. I did talk to a few people, but I didn't get much out of it. I did win a raffle sponsored by Charles River and got a free copy of their book Real-Time 3D Terrain Engines Using C++ and DirectX 9.

Visual Effects / Movies

the sign outside the Civic Theater for SIGGRAPHWhat really packs people into SIGGRAPH each year is computer graphics in film and TV. In addition to all the film related companies at the exhibition, there were a few sessions related to special effects. The session "Creatures, Critters & Clones: Styles and Techniques Unique to Industrial Light + Magic" on Monday night was actually quite disappointing. I was hoping to hear some things relevant to the title of the session, but it was basically a few animation directors from ILM talking about how they got into the business and what their inspirations were. Somewhat naively, I wanted to see cool behind-the-scenes stuff! It makes me wonder why the coordinator insisted that no cameras be used during the session, since no "confidential" footage was shown.

Two other sessions were much better: "Effects Omelette" on Thursday morning described some effects from Terminator 3, Star Trek: Nemesis, and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The content was fantastic, both the effects themselves and how they were broken down and analyzed by the speakers... where else can you learn how to make a nice-looking nuclear explosion? Equally good was the special session on Friday called "Finding Nemo: Story, Art, Technology, and Triage" that featured artists from Pixar showing a number of story, lighting, cinematography, and animation techniques used to create the film. It certainly gave me a better appreciation of the amount of talent that went into that film, and I hope some of that content makes it onto the DVD.

I guess this is also a good time to mention the SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater, which was once again an exciting presentation of the best in computer animation. At the showing I went to on Tuesday night, the piece that got the biggest reaction from the audience was the animated short "Gone Nutty" by Blue Sky Studios, featuring Scrat from the Ice Age movie. It also included clips and behind-the-scenes footage from movies such as X-Men 2, The Hulk, and The Matrix Reloaded. I guess my personal favorite was the least like the others: "Molecular Visualizations of DNA", an amazing look into how DNA is created, and a leap above and beyond typical medical visualizations.

The Exhibition

the ATI boothThe most notable characteristic of this year's SIGGRAPH exhibition is that it was smaller than usual. And it wasn't just the small exhibitors that were absent this year; big players like SGI, Sun Microsystems, and Viewpoint did not make an appearance on the show floor. (It's just not SIGGRAPH without SGI and Sun fighting for attention with equally big, equally loud booths right across from each other.) On the other hand, some vendors still had a pretty big presence: both Intel and HP had huge booths, and neither of them are really associated with computer graphics.

NVIDIA, ATI, and 3Dlabs were there pitching their latest-and-greatest professional graphics cards; note that consumer cards like the RADEON and GeForce series were not being advertised. I think NVIDIA had the best booth of the three graphics card vendors, mostly because of their nifty Dawn and Vulcan demos that were running constantly. The Dawn demo even made it into the Electronic Theater as possibly the first real-time entry in SIGGRAPH history. Not to be outdone, ATI was giving out free ice cream in front of the convention center.

a crowd around the Alias booth learning how Maya was used in the development of The Hulk gameBeing a long-time user of the Discreet / Autodesk's 3ds max software, I couldn't resist watching at least one demo of 3ds max 6 (complete with a funky new logo), which was announced at SIGGRAPH. Since I haven't used the software in a while, it is tough keeping up with all of the changes. However, anything I would want to do in terms of personal creative projects can still be done with the version I currently own (3ds max 4) so I don't feel compelled to upgrade. Nevertheless, the new stuff I saw was impressive, such as the Particle Flow feature demonstrated by visual effects artist Brandon Davis. I also visited the Alias (formerly Alias/Wavefront) and Softimage booths to see how they are used in games, in particular The Hulk (using Maya) and the stunning Half-Life 2 (using Softimage XSI).

The book publishers were out in force this year, as there were no fewer than seven present at the show: Addison Wesley, Morgan Kaufmann, Charles River, Premier Press, AK Peters, Springer Verlag, and John Wiley. As I noted earlier, all of the publishers seem to have some game development books now. For them to have these books at SIGGRAPH is not a big surprise: graphics in the form of both art and code is a big part of game development (the other parts being AI, audio, networking, etc.). I managed to get away without buying a single book this year, since I can get similar discounts outside the show, and, well, I have too many books anyway and not enough to use them.

I was able to get through the exhibition faster than usual, partly due to fewer exhibitors, but also because I am getting better at resisting the urge to spend time watching demos for software or hardware that I will never really use (perhaps I am deluding myself on that last point). On the other hand, it is much harder to resist the allure of free stuff. In terms of loot (arrr... booty!), I got away from the exhibition with 8 pounds of fliers and magazines, a couple of posters, and a few tchotckes (mostly pens). This is in addition to the 7 pounds of paper I get with my conference registration, especially the ever-growing conference proceedings. The most coveted freebie on the show floor was a small wind-up walking teapot being given out by Pixar; I never did find out how to get one.

(Wow... I had a lot more to say about the exhibition than I thought I would.)

Miscellaneous: Robotics, LEGO, and Emerging Technologies

Stan Winston (center) and other presenters watching the SDR-4X danceFor the "miscellaneous" category, I have a few unrelated topics. On Wednesday night before the reception, I attended a session called "Android Dreams: The Present and Future of Autonomous Robotics" where robotics researchers and manufacturers presented their latest technology. Specifically, the audience saw recorded and live demos of robots like Leonardo and Kismet from MIT and Stan Winston (a legend in creature effects for film), Robonaut from NASA, PackBot and Roomba from iRobot, and the amazing SDR-4X humanoid robot from Sony. This session was fascinating, and I didn't even originally have it on my schedule! Easily the highlight of the session was a segment where Sony had their SDM dancing to some music, and you could see child-like delight on the faces of Stan Winston and the other presenters.

the LDraw.org LEGO boothAnother pleasant surprise was to find a "booth" featuring LEGO modeling software, brought to SIGGRAPH by the folks at LDraw.org. I have spent more money on LEGO sets than I care to admit, so it was indeed a thrill to see that so many other SIGGRAPH attendees share my interest. The booth also had some LEGO sets for attendees to help assemble, including a massive LEGO rendition of the SIGGRAPH text logo.

I should also say something about the Emerging Technologies area. Once again the theme seemed to be computer vision: what neat things can you do when the computer is able to recognize objects and motion? I didn't spend much time in this area, but you can read the details of all of the projects presented from the previous link. I will say that probably my favorite project there was also one of the simplest: a spotlight that tracked people walking around the entrance of the room. I think it was the only project where you could participate without realizing it.

SIGGRAPH Management

attendees playing UT 2003 during the receptionI also want to say a few words about the conference as a whole. I think anyone who attended could see that the conference was cut back quite a bit from past years: there was only one reception instead of two, the merchandise store was much smaller, there was no job fair, no panel sessions, and the entire conference was one day shorter than past years (ended on Thursday instead of Friday), among other things I am probably forgetting. The reception was particularly "basic": it was held at the convention center, and there was no carved meat or ice cream as in past years. OK, so maybe I was spoiled by previous extravagant off-site receptions, particularly the memorable one at Universal Studios Hollywood for SIGGRAPH 2001. On the plus side, this reception did have some Xbox and PC machines for playing games.

Also disappointing is that the conference will be held in Los Angeles for both 2004 and 2005. That makes three in a row on the West Coast, which is not very convenient for someone in Atlanta. (On a side note, 2004 was originally supposed to be in Atlanta.) In addition, I never thought of LA as a good conference venue: the convention center itself is fine, but it does not have good access to shopping / dining (nothing like San Diego, San Antonio, or New Orleans). I imagine that this is an effort to get as much money for the show as possible, since holding it in LA brings out a larger crowd. Anyway, hopefully things will get "back to normal" when the economy recovers.

San Diego

the rather attractive San Diego convention centerLast but not least, I was very happy with the choice of city this year. San Diego is now high on my list for conference cities: the Gaslamp shopping / dining district and Horton Plaza mall are right next door, as are most of the hotels. In particular, the proximity of nearby shops made it easier to ignore the $2.50 they were charging for a 12 oz can of soda in the convention center. The weather can't be beat, the bay scenery and expensive naval hardware are something pleasant to look at, and there are plenty of local attractions. I arrived on Saturday night, and left on Thursday night (red-eye on Delta), so I only had time to see what was within walking distance. But I can definitely see myself coming back for a vacation now that I have had a taste of what the city has to offer, such as The Gaslamp Strip Club (don't worry, it's just a steak restaurant!).

So that's it for SIGGRAPH 2003... thanks for reading! Questions / comments are welcome.

Mauricio, August 4th 2003