The SIGGRAPH 2007 Con Report

Browse the SIGGRAPH 2007 Slide Show

"Digital innovators, creative researchers, award-winning producers, provocative artists, energetic executives, and adventurous engineers. The worldwide SIGGRAPH community gathers in San Diego to explore the products, systems, techniques, ideas, and inspiration that are creating the next three generations of computer graphics and interactive techniques."

Okay, so technically this isn't a comic or sci-fi/fantasy con, and I didn't go to be sitting behind any tables, signing autographs. It was technically a business trip, as I was shipped out to California by my current employer. Still, considering the highly geeky nature of SIGGRAPH, I just couldn't help myself. Even if the vast majority of you couldn't afford the rather pricy registration fees, I just had to share the experience.

SIGGRAPH 2007 was August 5-9, 2007, at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, CA (the same convention center where Comic-Con International is held).


Our adventure began on a really, really bad foot. Did I say foot? Maybe I should have said a bad leg. For that matter, maybe it was an arm and a leg, with a few hands, ears, and a couple vital internal organs thrown in for good measure. The first leg of our flight was delayed, and we managed to get to our connecting gate in Houston just as they started boarding. Then we had probli>s with the rental car being smaller than we anticipated, so it took a while to find a car big enough to hold all our stuff. But the real kicker was when we arrived at the hotel and found out that the company credit card was declined and our reservations were cancelled just thirty minutes prior to our arrival. Fortunately, the hotel had two open rooms, so the four of us split into pairs and doubled up for the first night with the intention of procuring two more rooms the next day. We settled in for an uneasy night so we could wake up bright and early for the conference the next day.

Daylight did not bring a reprieve from our woes, however. Since our reservations were cancelled, we were no longer listed at the hotel as attendees of the conference. Thus, we were denied the necessary wrist bands that let us ride the shuttle bus to the convention center. Since I've been to Comic-Con in San Diego several times, I was already familiar with the fact that San Diego traffic can be crazy during a convention, so I wasn't looking forward to the task of finding parking. We hopped into the car and drove into town, following the interstates to downtown. It was then that we discovered that the exit ramp that leads to the easiest route to the convention center was closed, so we had to navigate the maze of one-way streets through town. Fortunately, Lady Luck started to take pity on us and there was ample (albeit expensive) parking beneath the convention center. We took the elevator upstairs, were releaved to find out our convention registrations suffered a better fate than the hotel reservations, and rushed to our first sessions.

SIGGRAPH is truly a kalidescope of many different things. First of all, it's not just one conference but several coinciding in the same location. There's the main conference, a commercial exhibition, an "emerging display technologies" exhibit, a video gaming symposium, a graphics hardware conference, and several other gatherings all rolled into one. Secondly, it's a unique blending of both science and art. In one room you might watch a hilarious animated short, then walk to another room to see breathtaking digital artwork, and end up sitting in on a presentation of a paper on modeling fluid dynamics in real time on the latest PC graphics hardware (complete with all the necessary calculus). So instead of breaking up this report on a day by day basis as I usually do, I've decided to tackle it based on portions of the conference.

The Exhibition Hall

To a layperson unfamiliar with the computer graphics industry, the list of companies in the exhibition hall may seem odd. Some names would definitely be familiar: Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks SKG, Sony Imageworks. Those with a passing knowledge of image processing and 3D modeling will have heard of Autodesk, Adobe, and Wacom, and gamers would definitely recognize NVIDIA and ATI. But IBM? Google? What are these companies doing here? And what about the tons of other companies that you've never heard of, some of them so specialized that they're never really mentioned outside of a small circle of insiders?

This was one of the surprises that awaited me when I first walked the exhibition hall floor. I was overwhelmed by the diversity of who was represented and why they were there. Some peddled the latest 3D modeling software, others rendering and storage hardware, still others demonstrated specialized hardware systems like motion capture or 3D "printing", and some simply offered services such as outsourcing modeling or selling books. From the smallest, highly specialized niche animation houses to the big dogs of Hollywood, it seemed like a little bit of everything was showcased on the floor.

Small as it was, I think my favorite booth was the Wacom one, if only because they had several models of their Cintiq line on dislpay. For those unfamiliar with Wacom, they are the leading makers of graphic tablets that allow digital artists to literally draw directly into the computer, as opposed to drawing on paper and optically scanning the result. Although GPF is still drawn by hand on Bristol board, I use my Intuos3 all the time when doing the digital half of the strip. It's so much more natural than working with the mouse, and I can hardly remember how I worked on the strip without it. (Part of me hopes to one day move to doing GPF entirely in digital form, although I haven't had time to do much experimentation.) The Cintiq, however, combines an LCD display with the pen input, allowing you to literally draw directly onto the 21.3" (54cm) screen. I believe they had to call in a maintenance crew to mop up the drool after I reluctantly wandered off. The art geek in me has been lusting after one of these for a couple years now, although the tightwad in me has had trouble justifying the $2500 USD price tag.

All the major Hollywood studios had some sort of presence, as did several of the exclusive special effects houses like Industrial Light & Magic. Pixar was heavily featuring their recent release, Ratatouille, while Spider-Man 3 dominated the Sony pavillion. ILM was showing off their work on this year's Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix. Ringling College of Art & Design showcased many works from star pupils of their computer animation department.

Several hardware venders were present. Of note were HP and IBM, both of whom were touting their workstations and servers. Being a former IBMer, I was particularly drawn to the System X BladeCenter on display; I secretly want one of these under my desk, just to say I can. (Of course, I can't. If I'm too cheap to spring for a Cintiq, I definitely don't have the cash for one of these.) I was rather surprised to see that Apple wasn't present, given their heavy association with creative professionals. (I probably saw more MacBooks in one place that week than I've seen anywhere else.) Other curious entires included Google, which was showing off some of their more graphics-heavy projects like Google Earth and Google Video.

The Guerilla Studio

The Guerilla Studio was a curious concept, and has undoubtedly be so popular that it's been brought back every year. In the Studio, different hardware and software vendors donate equipment and materials for the free use of all attendees. Anyone with access to the conference could go down, sign up, and participate in a myriad of cutting edge technologies. For example, there were a huge number of workstations set up for free access, loaded with the latest versions of various 3D modeling and animation software. Anyone could simply walk in, sit down, and start playing, building anything they wanted.

Once you fininshed building something interesting (or if you happened to have a pre-built model on hand), you could walk over to the 3D "printer" to have a rapid prototype built of your model. These devices use either liquified or powered plastics to "print" 3D models from the ground up, laying down layer by layer of plastic until the entire object is formed. We tried getting a copy of our project's mascot, but various roadblocks kept us from getting the model in time.

Another shop set up in the Studio allowed attendees to use a motion capture rig to digitize physical movements and map them to a 3D model. Yet another station featured a digital guitar which had a separate amplifier for each string, allowing individual notes to be tweaked and modified after being played. It also captured sound in three dimensions, allowing the listener to have the sound move around them depending on which string was plucked.

Emerging Display Technologies / Art Gallery

The grand ballroom (the same room where they held the massive Lord of the Rings panel at Comic-Con 2002) was split into two co-located events, with open movement between the two. The Emerging Display Technologies event featured quite a few fascinating examples of bleeding edge human/computer interaction. Among the featured items were the Microsoft Surface, which despite the excessive hype does seem quite cool (check out this video on YouTube); "digital paper" that provides a much higher contrast than traditional LCDs and similar displays and can even be seen clearly in strong light or sunlight; smart tables that manipulate objects on a computer based on how you manipulate real objects placed on them; and clear plastic displays that appeared to render images in midair.

The one real standout (to me, at least) was working samples of the One Laptop Per Child machine. This project's ambitious goal is to create a low-cost computer that will be sold to impoverished governments so literally every child in the world will be able to have access to a computer and the Internet. While I've been silently following the progress of this project for a while, hoping it succeeds in its goals, I was somewhat disappointed with the actual device. It seemed so... flimsy and toyish. Then again, for $100 USD, I wouldn't expect it to play Doom 3. Still, I suppose I was hoping it would be more robust, given its lofty ambitions.

The other side of the room housed the digital art gallery. The displays here varied enormously, from traditional static paintings and photos produced with digital paints, to physical displays that integrated some form of video or auditory element, to fully interactive works that inserted the viewer into the action or required viewer input to operate. The most complex piece required participants to sign a waiver and was rumored to cause "diaper rash" in some unfortunate users. Needless to say, I avoided that one.

What...? That's it? This is where it ends? Unfortunately... um, yes. It's been over a year since I started writing this report and it still isn't finished. Things got hectic at both work and at home, we moved servers and totally rewrote the site from the ground up, and a bunch of other distractions got in the way. I eventually plan to add more to this, but it's probably going to be a long time before that happens and who knows how well my memory will hold up by then. The Slideshow contains a bunch of extra memories, though, so make sure to check it out.

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