Ricky At SIGGRAPH 2010, Part 1
The 37th annual Special Interest Group on Graphics and Interactive Techniques (SIGGRAPH) conference took place last week at the downtown Los Angeles convention center. Holding to a tradition established in 1994, the conference takes place in Los Angeles every other year. Last year's SIGGRAPH was held in the wonderful city of New Orleans, and while I enjoyed the conference (and the city) thoroughly, I think that it's a much different event when held in Los Angeles, which is essentially the center of the CG industry and the home of the Hollywood entertainment world.
This was my 3rd year attending the event as a journalist, and in many ways I feel like I'm only just starting to get a feel for this incredibly deep and complex event. There are so many events, films, panels, talks, displays, discussions, presentations, art works, exhibitions, off-site luncheons, meetings and papers being presented, that if it were possible to go back and attend the conference again, it would be an entirely different experience. For every event you choose to attend, there are three more that you regret having left off your schedule. I spent considerable time this year pouring over the advance program provided by SIGGRAPH and came up with the core events for each day of the 5-day conference, but I've learned from years past to always leave plenty of space for events and encounters that happen by accident. This really worked well for me this year as it was a SIGGRAPH where I met more people and had more enjoyable discussions than the last two years combined. For me, SIGGRAPH 2010 truly was "the People behind the Pixels" (the theme of this year's conference).
So, let me take you through my highlights of this year's SIGGRAPH experience. Since I have so many pictures and events to describe, I'll break this article into two parts. This part will cover Sunday through Tuesday, and Part 2 will cover Wednesday and Thursday. Each day (except Sunday) was easily a 10 to 12 hour day for me. Since I live in Los Angeles, I took the new subway from my home in North Hollywood. The 40 minute trip gave me a chance to go over my day's schedule and to look through the "Conference Locator" (the overall schedule for each day) for anything I may have missed.
The conference moved to a Sunday through Thursday schedule this year. A fairly big change from the traditional Mon-Fri schedule. I think this was probably done to overcome the "dead Friday" syndrome (where many attendees used Friday to head back home), but also to end the conference on the same day as the Exhibition Hall closes. The Exhibition Hall is a three-day trade show within the conference, where dozens of companies like AMD, Vicon, Autodesk and Pixar set up booths to show their products and services. This part of the event is open to the public and is heavily attended.
Sunday was the only frustrating day for me at SIGGRAPH. Not sure why they scheduled the media check-in at noon, instead of the 9am registration time for everyone else, but it left me losing a third of the day. Right after check-in (always easy and smooth), I headed over to the "hands-on" part of the conference, the Studio, to attend a couple classes in animation. But, to my dismay, the Studio area had been jammed into a relatively small hall along with the Art Gallery and the Emerging Technologies booths. This created such a traffic jam, that I was unable to get a seat. And, I wasn't alone, there were dozens of people in the same boat.
This was one of the few times I've encountered poor planning at SIGGRAPH. Last year's Studio in New Orleans had it's own room and was very easy to attend. And the Art Gallery (in addition to having twice as many displays) had it's own room. I can only speculate that belt-tightening may have played a part in pushing SIGGRAPH into combining the events into one room. However, it caused a lot of problems that made attending events in that hall less enjoyable and, well, frustrating.
The Studio: too many people for too small a space
Since the Art Gallery was not quite as jammed as the Studio, I spent considerable time there looking at the installations and chatting with several presenters who were present with their creations. According to the press release, SIGGRAPH received over 250 submissions to the Gallery, with the jury accepting 14 to feature. The official title for the Gallery is "TouchPoint: Haptic Exchange Between Digits," which essentially means that the exhibit is focusing on creating an interactive environment where visitors interact with the installations in unique ways.
Joseph Farbrooks "Strata Caster" installation
Some highlights of the gallery for me included "hanahanahana" by Yasuaki Kakehi, "Strata Caster" by Joseph Farbrook and the delightful "Echidna" by Tine Bech. Each of these installations provided such a unique experience that you lost track of time while experiencing each one. I liked many of the others, but something about these three stayed with me and captured my imagination. I noticed in the conference schedule that Mr. Farbrook would be doing a "Art Installation in Virtual Space" presentation on Tuesday and immediately added it to my schedule.
While waiting for the "Commercials and Cinematics" special screening of the Film Festial, I spent most of the afternoon getting oriented and scouting out all of the main locations for SIGGRAPH events. The convention center is organized around two main buildings: the South Hall, where the Exhibition, Registration, Media Center, lunch area and meeting rooms are located, and the West Hall, where the huge Electronic Cinema and most of the classrooms/presentation rooms are located. In between, there are three levels of long hallways jam-packed with posters, displays, installations and the already described Studio.
Lots of sunlight at the entrance to West Hall
One thing I like a lot about the LA convention center is the fact that it's so full of sunlight. The design emphasizes natural light with lots of windows and skylights. Makes it so much more pleasant when you come out of a huge, dark room where you've just spent the last few hours. And avoids the "cave syndrome" of always being in dark rooms and hallways.
After a good deal of exploring and people watching, I ended up in the Book Store, which had several rooms filled with CG-related books and DVDs. I could have easily spent several hundred dollars on the interesting books featured there. There was an entire room devoted to training videos, and I ended up buying an Eat3D.com DVD tutorial on Kismet for the Unreal Development Kit.
Film screening: Babioles by Matray
At the end of the day, I spent an hour or so at the Film Festival which has always been a standout part of SIGGRAPH for me. The quality and variety of animated films presented are among the best in the world, so with every film made you want to clap until your hands hurt. Surprisingly, the room wasn't jammed like the Studio. There must have been over a hundred people in attendance and all were equally enthusiastic. Some standout films include Valve's "Team Fortress 2: Meet the Spy," "Babioles" by Matray and "The Kinematograph" by Tomek Baginski. All of the films were beautifully presented with excellent sound. I came away from the day very excited.
Don Marinelli, SIGGRAPH Keynote speaker
SIGGRAPH proper kicked in on Monday. Attendance was twice that of Sunday and the full schedule of events started early in the morning and ran to fairly late in the evening. I avoided the huge rush to see the "All About Avatar" session and came in a little later for the Keynote address by Carnegie Mellon celeb Don Marinelli, which did not disappoint. Mr. Marinelli comes from a Theatre background and his presentation lived up to expectations, and then some. Witty, direct and slightly over-the-top, he spoke at length about his effort to bridge the existing academic gap between art and computer technology, by simple walking over the computer science department and talking with them. Eventually, this led to his embracing the "interactive" aspects of CG and the forming of Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center (ETC). His call for change in how universities view and teach computer technology was a message well-received by SIGGRAPH attendees. I found his comments refreshing and challenging. He really is a "shake it up" kind of guy that education (and SIGGRAPH itself) needs sometimes.
The rest of the day was taken up with a superb off-site meeting at the Figueroa Hotel with Pascal Mueller and his procedural city creation program "CityEngine". After that, I spent over an hour at the "Blender Community" meeting with Blender founder Ton Roosendaal. The smallish room was packed with enthusiastic people who heard Ton review Blender founding, history and current year accomplishments. I was also very impressed that out of every talk/panel I attended, this was the only one where every single person introduced themselves and told why they were there. This was one event I wished I could have stayed the entire afternoon with as they were presenting a sneak preview of "Sintel," the new Blender open movie project I've been following all year. Alas, I had other appointments.
Emerging Technologies installation "Meta Cookie"
Next up was the Media Tour of the "Emerging Technologies" exhibit, led by the event chair, Preston Smith, who has been at his position for 15 years. Of 130 submissions, 22 were selected for the exhibit. When I asked Mr. Smith about the criteria for selection, he said it was based on "true innovation; a technology not seen before and significant advancement from previous years." He also commented that unlike other conferences where a major corporation might be afraid to reveal their technology, many companies trust SIGGRAPH and present innovative discoveries, because of SIGGRAPH's reputation and achievements.
Too many installations to single out in the "Emerging Technologies" exhibit, but I very much liked "Acroban the Humanoid" and the "Meta Cookie" installations. Again, the space was very tight in this area (The Studio), that it was hard to spend a lot of time there. I ended up coming back several times during the week to catch up on everything. When I asked Mr. Smith if he had seen technology trends over his 15 years running the exhibit, he thought a bit and said "lasers and robotics." Looking around the exhibit, it was certainly evident that both technologies were well represented.
Joseph Kosinski and "Tron: Legacy"
Tuesday began with an early morning Media briefing with this year's SIGGRAPH chair, Terrence Masson, who gave us an overview of SIGGRAPH 2010. With over 22,000 registrations, this year's event was an increase over last year's SIGGRAPH. Increased Exhibitors (naturally, because we were in LA) and changes in this year's conference. Focus this year was on the production community and the "people behind the pixels." The Animation Festival chair, Isaac Kerlow, spoke briefly and said that there was "so much content submitted this year that they couldn't include it all."
Surprisingly, in a room full of reporters and media representatives, there were very few questions. SIGGRAPH has always done a good job of making the media comfortable, with a separate room that is quiet, well supplied with internet connected computers and lots of information about events and happenings on a day to day basis. I was also impressed with SIGGRAPH's use of Twitter, Facebook and their Media blog this year. More than once I checked their info streams and discovered things I had missed in the advance program.
The media got an early look at the Exhibition floor, and I had a chance to look around before all of the crowds rushed in. The Exhibition would run from Tuesday through Thursday, with dozens of companies showing their wares and conducting interviews and giveaways. My first appointment was with Rob Powers at the NewTek booth, where he took me through the upcoming release of LightWave 10. Rob was an articulate and passionate speaker who feels that "just the renderer alone is worth the price of admission" with LightWave 10. Very enjoyable first meeting. Looking forward to reviewing LightWave 10 in the fall.
Rob Powers of NewTek
Then, two lunch meetings in a row: the MAXON CINEMA 4D luncheon and the Autodesk 20th Anniversary Luncheon for 3ds Max. Not sure how this happened, but both events were informative and enjoyable. MAXON provided a better meal, but Autodesk had Tim Miller from Blur Studios, who was delightfully blunt and profane with his presentation of how Blur has used 3ds Max from the beginning and do not plan on changing. He showed clips of the early Blur Studios work, ending up with a literally stunning cinematic for Star Wars: The Old Republic. Both MAXON and Autodesk spoke at length on future development for CINEMA 4D and 3ds Max, and I wish I could share some of it with you, but they asked us to hold off until they are ready. Each presentation was excellent, with a slight edge to MAXON for being concise and clear. Also a pleasure to meet other media members like Paul Hellard from the CGSociety and Randall E. Hand of VizWorld.com.
In slightly bloated shape, I waddled over to the Exhibit floor to chat with Yoni of StudioGPU and learned that version 2.0 of this cool program would be coming out in the fall. With only a few minutes to spare, I rushed to the Studio to catch Joseph Farbrook's "Creating Art Installations in Virtual Space" presentation. I had seen his "Strata Caster" installation in the Art Gallery on Sunday and wanted to learn more about his creation and the history of virtual art installations in general. I was not disappointed. Despite noise competition and a tiny audience, Joseph did a great job presenting a short history of art installations in general and ended up talking about the advantages of virtual space. He encouraged us to use virtual space in more creative ways, feeling that "most of what you see in virtual space are re-creations of real space." I had the chance to speak to Joseph and we discovered a mutual interest in machinima. Thoroughly enjoyed this presentation and left with my mind spinning around all kinds of ideas.
Joseph Farbrook presenting "Art Installations in Virtual Space"
Caught the tail end of the Tron: Legacy discussion in the huge theatre where they show the film festival selections. Wish I could have seen the clip Sergio was raving about in his report, but I did catch the director, Joseph Kosinski, who was articulate and blunt at times. The amount of thought that went into this film (it's his feature film debut) struck me. I liked his ideas about Tron being a "dark film" and wanting to keep that tone in the new version. And since he was shooting the film in 3D, he had much to say about the advantages (and some disadvantages) to 3D. It was apparent he had considered the subject deeply. I think I'll be seeing this film when it comes out.
Ended the long (12 hour) day at the Renderosity reception many blocks away from the Convention Center. The half hour walk was just the thing to clear my head. Jenifer Carey laid out a nice spread of food and drink in one of the upstairs meeting rooms. I had a chance to relax and chat with Tim Haaksma, Renderosity's new Marketing and Sales representative, along with other artists and vendors who came for the reception (forgive me for not getting all of your names).
I hit the sack after an hour long subway ride and a drive home. I've done a pretty good job of not overscheduling myself this year, but I think Tuesday was the exception. However, looking back at how much fun I had and all of the interesting people I spoke with, I don't think I'd change a thing.
Next up is SIGGRAPH Notes Part 2: Wednesday and Thursday.
Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
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