UNLIMITED BANDWIDTH OF HUMAN IMAGINATION
An Irreverant Report about SIGGRAPH
by Patric Hedlund
HOARDER CULTS vs HACKER HISTORY
The annual academic get-together to share innovation is now dominated by an expansive trade show where Vegas-style glitz and amplified corporate carnie-barkers compete in a bedlam of hype and throbbing music.
* Thank you to Michael Grinder for shareware/open source distinction.
much easier to make something fun smart than to try to make something
--Caleb Chung, inventor of the Furbee
capitalists troll the halls to the snappy tune of NASDAQ stock
Great mathematicians, history proves, stand on the shoulders of other mathematicians. Today however, programmers are being asked to stomp on the hands of other programmers.
The creeping propertization of information and ideas is encroaching on SIGGRAPH like kudzo vines.
a winning entry in SIGGRAPH's Fortune Cookie Sayings For the
Future contest was printed on the wall: "One pixel by itself
is a lonely thing, but that same pixel with thousands of friends
will rule the world."
In 1969--the year of Woodstock--a handful of long-haired mathematicians and buttoned down computer scientists gathered around chalkboards at a meeting of The Association for Computer Machinery (ACM) to share discoveries about new algorithms that could make computers draw shapes, then fill those shapes with colors. The notion of computer graphics was being born.
That first gathering of ACM's Special Interest Group in Graphics (SIGGRAPH)was guided by the generous hacker spirit of shared discoveries. That practice catapulted a sideline in mathematics into a global revolution in how we think, build, play and dream.
The 30th anniversary of that meeting drew 42,000 attendees. SIGGRAPH '99, in Los Angeles, has gone Hollywood, via Wall Street--teetering on the the edge of E3 decible hoopla. The annual academic get-together to share innovation is now dominated by an expansive trade show where Vegas-style glitz and amplified corporate carnie-barkers compete in a bedlam of hype and throbbing music. Venture capitalists troll the halls to the snappy tune of NASDAQ stock price upticks and professors come equipped with both academic and start-up company cards to flip out of their vest pockets.
When an eager grad student or researcher approaches to compliment a colleague, asking how a specific bit of technowizadry was accomplished, the standard answer--echoing on escalators, in restaurants, stairwells and restrooms--has become: "I'm sorry, I'd love to tell you, but that's proprietary." Watching their faces, you can believe these proud developers would love to yodel out the answers, that they would eagerly share the joy of discovery and dialogue with their peers.
After all, that's why SIGGRAPH was created: "Share what you know. Learn what you don't."
Great mathematicians, history proves, stand on the shoulders of other mathematicians. In 1999 however, programmers are being asked to stomp on the hands of other programmers. The creeping propertization of information and ideas is encroaching on SIGGRAPH like kudzo vines.
If there is a schizophrenia growing within the event, you can detect a tasteful attempt to accommodate it in the conference layout. The cavernous south wing of the L.A. Convention Center was dominated by commercial exhibitions and the Milleniium Motel, which showcases products of the future. The west wing was devoted to panels, academic papers and well-equipped computer labs lit like discos. The two were connected by a long walkway umbilicus featuring the art gallery, an electronic theater of animated films, training for teachers, and humorous exhibits referring to SIGGRAPH's history, its manic diversity and unique generosity of spirit.
The marble floor of that corridor is engraved with the theme of evolution, from troglodytes through saber tooth tigers to the modern day City of the Angels. Conventioneers scuttle back and forth through this tunnel like RNA molecules, carrying information from one side to the other, but the sucking sound is progressively one way.
Enrique Santos of Digital Domain capsulized the situation during a panel on research and development in the film industry: "We implement SIGGRAPH papers, we don't write them," he said, "but implementing a SIGGRAPH paper often leads to enough discovery to fill a new SIGGRAPH paper, maybe two. Unfortunately, we have to inhibit publishing until our product is out, which is often a two year lag, and by then we're hard at work on another project and don't have the time...."
"We do need to maintain an edge," Ed Leonard of DreamWorks, SKG agreed, explaining why the information loop so often gets broken by the large facilities.
Paul Yanover of Disney Animation added that Disney's board of directors counts any techniques used on their projects as "a corporate asset worth lots of money that must be closely guarded." No one asked if the same accounting method led the company to pay taxes on the wealth the company has received in the form of freely shared ideas exchanged at prior SIGGRAPH forums.
HACKERS vs HOARDERS
It was into this depressing fog that Keith Goldfarb of RHYTHM & HUES shined a bright light by announcing that, as head of his company's R&D division and as a member of the company's board, he has initiated adoption of open source software.
Currently R&H is using the open source GIMP* paint tools with enthusiastic results. Now they are moving toward adoption of LINUX.
The auditorium erupted in cheers and applause. GIMP is not shareware, the proprietary binary-only software that is freely redistributable. GIMP is "free" or "open source" software that can be freely distributed with complete source code and can be modified by anyone as long as modifications are covered under the same license (the GNU General Public License or GPL).
A ripple of conflicted enthusiasm swept across the panel, as the heads of R&D for Pacific Data Images, Digital Domain, Disney Feature Animation, Pixar, Lucas Digital (ILM) and DreamWorks, SKG responded to the Rhythm & Hues challenge by saying they had agreed to work together to see how they could start moving toward "giving something back to the larger community" by adopting more open source tools. If powerful graphics utilities emerge for Linux, the argument for adoption will be hard to resist.
From the audience, Joe Higham, manager of software tools for Oscar winner Blue Sky Studios, reminded the group of Carnegie Mellon's report that open source software is uniformly less buggy than proporietary products that do not reveal source code. He added that his company would be more confident, however, when dependable support for Linux is routinely available.
At that very moment, twenty men with cell phones glued to their heads rapidly left the room to check with their brokers about RED HAT, Inc. (which offers Linux support services and opened its IPO during the conference). Red Hat stock bounced from $14 to $90 while SIGGRAPH was in session.
Meanwhile, over in the Exhibition Hall, SILICON GRAPHICS announced the release of its new SGI 1400L Server with Red Hat's Linux 6.0. SGI is launching this product at the same time they announce their new Windows NT server. SGI marketing execs said a Linux-based graphics station is in development.
At the booth next door, COMPAQ got cheers for giving away cool T-shirts along with the news they are offering Linux on new consumer products. As the trend toward independent contracting and outsourcing to independent designers spreads, an increasing number of talented developers have a stake in the future of this question.
In the walkway, just beyond the troglodytes, a winning entry in SIGGRAPH's Fortune Cookie Sayings For the Future contest was printed on the wall: "One pixel by itself is a lonely thing, but that same pixel with thousands of friends will rule the world." Rhythm & Hues' Goldfarb put it this way: "The history of this field is open source and, we believe, so is the future."
There is seldom confusion about that fact among artists and futurists at SIGGRAPH, so I headed over to a panel called Natural and Invisible Human Interfaces, to consider how interfaces are evolving "away from technology and toward human beings" in the words of Michael Harris of Bear Systems. "Why," he asked rhetorically as I found a seat, "are we spending millions and millions of dollars to make smarter and smarter CPUs to put into the same stupid boxes?"
IS GUI DEAD?
The notion behind "outa yer face" interface design is to make controls disappear by using invisible systems which build upon skills we already possess and which respond to the natural motions and emotions of the human body.
"The Graphical User Interface (GUI) was invented in 1982 and hasn't essentially changed since. Do we really think we got it right?" asks Clark Dodsworth of Osage Associates, pointing to the exhausting level of focus required to use display screens composed of data-filled squares and 2D pretend click buttons which are much as they were first developed in Xerox Park over 17 years ago.
"In contrast," Dodsworth said, "there is emotion implicit in good design, it makes me feel good to use a tool that is intuitive."
Dr. Hiroshi Ishii of the MIT Tangible Interfaces lab, for instance, experiments with real pinwheels which respond to "digital wind" and lovely old fashioned glass bottles with corks which--by way of illustrating new ways of thinking about bits--contain digital information in the form of music.
When you uncork the bottle, the digital music spills out. The pinwheels are being tested in render farms and server co-location rooms, spinning faster and slower in response to the flow of digital traffic through the computers they are attached to.
There is no need for people passing through the room to turn focused attention to monitoring machine status. As they work on other things, their nearly unsconscious peripheral vision is alerted if a pinwheel stops (indicating machine failure) or starts spinning wildly (indicating a system which is approaching overload).
Interface researchers suggest that 50% of product development budgets should be allocated to "bringing the real world into the design loop" through emotional and social factors testing to explore the very important, if not always rational, issues of product usefulness, usability and desirabilty.
Caleb Chung of Toy Innovation (inventor of Furbee, the big-eyed furball with voice and memory chips for learning language, still selling a million units per month) suggests that toys are the perfect emotional onramp to the internet. "It's much easier to make something fun smart than to try to make something smart fun," he said.
(Should you doubt Chung's notion, Microsoft already has a relationship with a for-profit subsidiary of PBS, testing toy characters which speak specified phrases in response to infrared beams triggered by digital streams carried invisibly within the vertical interval of children's television shows. As broadcast TV converts from analog to digital, the task of turning those toys into two-way interfaces will not present a significant technological stretch. Ethical issues, however, may prove to be a more difficult hurdle. )
As the panel spoke about the need to create systems that are works of art as elegant as a wooden scythe or a cello, the notion of evolving intelligence in the world of human artifacts took a blow when the wetnet plumbing bulletin began circulating in the rear of the hall. It seems the elegant infrared motion-sensing water faucets in the women's main bathroom at the Convention Center had stopped working, causing everyone to line up behind one old-fashioned force-feedback interface lever to wash their hands.
Bill Buxton of Alias|Wavefront moved the panel smoothly back on track. Buxton is not a man known for understatement. "We're beyond the flying logo stage in effects and design," he said, churning up the excitement level with mention of the Z-CAM which he claims can composite 3D objects and natural scenes in real time without specialized lighting or blue screen preparation.
"It brings the workstation inside the camera, for WYSIWYG cinematography," says Buxton, calling up a video to demonstrate real time compositing of special effects with actors.
The Z-Cam pairs traditional optics and full color high definition video with an infrared beam system to generate a real time gray scale depth map of the human actors and natural environments.Prepared 3D objects are simultaneously inserted into the picture using the distance cues to composite the real and digitally generated images, complete with soft lighting and dynamic shadows.
Buxton's sample video showed a big 3D ring--let's call it the giant floating donut (sugar glaze, no messy chocolate)--that passes over the head and face of a human narrator as he speaks. The donut settles onto his shoulders for a moment before lifting back over his head and floating off. Throughout this sequence the ring's shadow ripples believably over the actor's brow, nose, moving lips, chin and shoulders, causing all the shade changes across his face and body you would see if it were a real object. The only clue that it isn't real is the fact that the actor fails to sneak a bite or at least lick the thing as it passes.
Another sample shows an actor stirring a CG-generated digital vapor cloud as it billows through the frame with apparent artifact-free response to the motion of the actor's hand.
Buxton contends that instant, in-camera compositing could cause a major change in the cost structure for creating digital effects, shifting development of 3D elements into preproduction and completing compositing during principal photography. A director able to watch the finished composite image in real time can be sure that actors and effects work together in each scene exactly as she originally envisioned. Intrigued by the potential economies for the production process,
I trekked back to the Exhibition floor in quest of the mythic WYSIWYG Z-Cam, only to discover finally that there is not yet one to be seen on this continent.
Richard Kerris of Alias' marketing staff says it is being developed with a group in Israel and will be shown at IBC in Amsterdam in three weeks. But hey, what else should we expect from futurists? Which brought up the question: what was going on down at the Millenium Motel?
Down two sets of descending escalators to the underground, the rooms beneath the Exhibition Hall carried forward the upstairs themes. Lights dim, your senses are plunged into the strange alertness which accompanies sudden blindness. The Millenium Hotel logo is projected like batman beams across the carpets. People walk toward the islands of light, stopping to let their irises adjust.
As they became oriented, visitors catch sight of two lavish installations at the entry, one whimsical, one MTV, both expensive. The first includes a laser show of neon-colored beams circling colorfully through dark spaces, reaching toward a luminous white cloud with what appears to be streams of silver rain.
Excited faces from many countries glimmer in the black light. Through the laser rainbow and rolling mists of fog machine haze a group of people laugh and reach up to pull on the silver strings. A choir of sixty midi voices sings in response. People play together, tugging and listening, discovering as a team how the nature and duration of a tug on each string can result in new voices, crescendos, sustained or staccato phrases of sound.
The installation was a success. It gathered people together, all leaning into a playful mystery, stretching their bodies in open space to explore with each other, learning how to make a raincloud sing.
Adjacent to that, just a little deeper into the darkness, under a large "Route 66.6" title card, was a '56 Chevy on methamphetamines, a relic transformed into a sculpture emerging out of fog, a high octane testosterone dream car launching at a steep angle into a 60 foot cinarama screen on which played a continuous loop of a desertscape highway--say the drive through Monument Valley or most any background matte from a RoadRunner cartoon.
People gazed at the lavish screen, slid into the front seat, tried steering the car, discovered a 5% shift in the huge projection from left to right. That was it for interactivity. A three thousand pound on-off switch with very limited responsiveness. Far less of a thrill than getting onto the L.A. Freeway for the drive home, or even having a chat with the taxi driver on the trip back to the hotel.
Flash over substance, hugely expensive stage props that did not even attempt to tap into the unlimited bandwidth of human imagination.
SIGGRAPH invested lavishly in the Millenium Motel entry displays, spending with the classic abandon of the nouveau riche, unintentionally illustrating the best and the worst tendencies of lots of money coupled with unexamined values.
The future, if we are to believe the meta message, threatens to be a place of flash over substance, of technology for its own sake, but where occasionally a truly delightful innovation makes the rest snap into background and suddenly we can forgive the merely mediocre as the price we must pay to create conditions in which the truly inspired may surface.
Corporate sponsors appear to have contributed generously to implement SIGGRAPH '99, and the organizing committees have done a seamless job of coordinating a complex event which extends unparalleled resources to multiple interest groups.
This is a truly astonishing event for diversity of offerings and generosity of spirit. For the artist and the scientist, SIGGRAPH is still the greatest show on earth.