CyberEdge Journal

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Another look at SIGGRAPH

By Jeffrey R. Aboauf © 2004. Used with permission.

When I arrived at SIGGRAPH 2004 at the L.A. Convention Center August 8, the staffers boasted 42,000 registered. Maybe. Since my first in SIGGRAPH ’93, LA’s conference always drew the biggest crowd. This year, either the center grew or the show was smaller. [Editor’s note: Official attendance was 27,825 with 229 exhibitors, according to ACM SIGGRAPH.] But even in LA, size doesn’t always matter. I found presentations on social implementations more compelling than the many evolving technologies and techniques.

R.T. Taylor’s talk on the history and future of VF/x (visual special effects) at Discreet’s Masters Class series should have been the keynote before thousands, not a lounge act for 15 or so. Dazzled in youth by Willis O’Brian’s King Kong, a ‘60’s guerilla-psychedelic film-video artist, a long-time player in film effects (analog and digital), founding member of the Visual Effects Society and instructor at the Gnomon School, Taylor presented his personal take on the history of effects from before 1800 to the present. The traditional magician is our star, Taylor told us, fittingly the first F/x artist. This entertaining chronicle of technologies and ideas, one inspiring the other, always returns to the star who creates the magic. We relate to and want to be this person, and his/her historical milestones are left to guide us. Taylor’s final slide showed two same-size, old-style electronic switch-boxes, one on top of the other (I don’t think the position was relevant). The top one, labeled “Man”, had one on-off switch; the bottom one, “Woman” had all kinds of buttons, dials and switches. After the chuckles died down, Taylor suggested these represent two diverging F/x development paths: one set increasingly intelligent, capable, automatic and ubiquitous for use by everyone to communicate in all media; the other ever-more capable, complex, specialized, flexible, and cryptic for wizards on the edge. Earthshaking? Of course not. But I couldn’t communicate Hamlet’s meaning by saying “he dies at the end”. After this 90-minute presentation (I wished it had continued hours longer), this observation is the only possible result. We left reminded that, as artists and developers, our strategies lie along one of these paths, rarely along both.

Talks like this remind us how relative the VF/x industry is – i.e. that 19th century audiences were no less astonished by a still photo projected by a flickering flame than we are by summer movie extravaganzas. Audiences watching 40’s and ‘50’s WWII movies weren’t troubled by how miniature destroyers and subs failed to produce realistic water effects, so long as they saw it for the first time, and only once. It’s not about powerful images, only their power in context. The industry, however, has an impact other than offering transitory, disposable imagery – the expanding quantity and fidelity of imagery. About the former, Ray Harryhausen suggested that when special (VF/x) images are everywhere, none are special, or noticed. The cheap, available, and ubiquitous digital faux-realism as implemented by commercial and political interests, is increasingly disturbing. I’m not arguing that Grand Theft Auto produces Columbine-like events. I’m suggesting that Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate speaks to how this industry serves up a digital Hell, where the lessons of past scandals serve only as primers for more successful efforts to perpetrate fraud, deceit, and schemes for political advantage.

Ironically, however empowering digital technology becomes, it seems to disempower artists in inverse proportion to the gains. I heard Michael Waddington present this argument at the 1995 3D Design Conference. He noted that in 1980 artists served at the pleasure and direction of the “suits”; that computer technology spawned a generation of techno-wizards who held new creative and economic power; and that we should expect the technology to produce more artists and cheaper delivery, which will restore the prior power structure. Only this time the artist will have to know more to hold a job. I wonder if he expected his prophesy to come true in less than a decade. The dot-com bust gave us the flip side of Supply-Side economics, i.e. taking away the supply of employers puts artists out of work. The competition for project work in movies and games is as fierce as a generation ago for artists in entertainment, and quite the opposite of what it was in the early ‘90’s.

You don’t have to be political to recognize that working in this industry, like any, has consequences, to artists and to the culture. The VF/x product is disposable and transitory; the effect is cumulative from collective authorship. There’s not much we can do to effect the momentum, which feeds my cynicism.

There’s another trend – one which made me optimistic. Christian Bauer spoke about the World Summit Award™, an initiative of the European Academy of Digital Media and the International Center for New Media, to recognize, showcase and exhibit “the best in e-Content and Creativity” from contributors around the world. ( Their mission is to reach populations otherwise invisible and technologically disenfranchised:

A truly Global Information Society is one where all persons, without distinction, are empowered freely to create, receive, share and utilize information and knowledge for their economic, social, cultural and political development.

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), held in Geneva in December 2003 and in Tunis in 2005, offers a historical opportunity to realize this vision.

The World Summit Award, a global project, held in the framework of the WSIS, seeks to demonstrate the benefits of the Information Society in terms of the new qualities in content and applications, by selecting, presenting and promoting the best products from all over the world with a special emphasis on bridging the digital divide.

In their first year, the WSA was given an audience before the United Nations, which along with other efforts, resulted in 136 signing nations, each making a commitment to drawing content from their populations. (Compare this with SIGGRAPH’s current 124 nation involvement, after its many years.) I don’t expect signing heads of state in poorer countries to draw from all segments of their society. But then they aren’t entirely responsible for soliciting participation. For example, there’s a fine piece submitted by a group of Ugandan women – not mainstream, but special and unique. Surprisingly (or not) the U.S. is not yet a signatory.

Bauer, (WSA project manager and member of the SIGGRAPH International Committee ’96-’04), is working to publicize WSA efforts in this country by organizing a road show for the 2003 competition in U.S. exhibition spaces. I hope the many colleges and multimedia schools present this year that have the facilities are joined by others in our industry who step up to serve their students and communities by hosting this exhibit. The WSA was a small presence in the conference international center this year. I hope their egalitarian vision gains a bigger voice in our community.

Other items of interest

To be sure there were noteworthy product announcements, which I know will be discussed in many other publications. A few items caught my current mood and interest:

  • Discreet previewed 3DS Max 7, set for Fall release. They wowed the faithful with demos of new Normal Mapping and Pixel-based Camera Map Tools, Edit Poly Modifier and enhancements to Editable Poly, Paint Selections and Paint Deform, Skin Morph and Skin Wrap Deformer, and a Parameter Controller. There’s a lot more:

  • Naturalmotion’s endorphin 1.6, an update to their high-end dynamic motion synthesis tool, is characterized by sophisticated AI applied to bipedal characters. This enables physically accurate character simulations with controllable, believable secondary motion, without use of motion capture or key framing. Huh? Well, when a rag doll falls down a flight of stairs, it goes limp. A character modified by endorphin will curl up, protect its head, and fall other than just by the effects of collision and gravity. In another demo, a scene imported from Max (without dynamics data), a character leaps to grab a helicopter, resulting not only in the character’s physics driving his movements, but his impact on the helicopter effecting its trajectory, which in turn drives the character movement. Right now endorphin is priced around $13,000. But look to see this driving development. Great demos here:

  • Luxology’s new 3D modeling product, modo, was on the floor for the first time this year. This may be the easiest and most advanced polygonal and subdivision surface modeler out there, and a joy to use in generating/updating morph targets. These veteran Lightwave developers have come up with a little jewel – fast, easy, elegant, full-featured modeling and UVW mapping set. In its first release includes built-in export support of the .MA format (Maya’s ASCII file), the .lwo format, and the OBJ format, as well as for material tags, blend shape data, UV safety. In addition, because modo uses Perl for its scripting language, users are able to further expand its connectivity. More info:

  • Eyeon software previewed Fusion 5, noteworthy for taking the 3D compositing environment one step further – not just composite planes transformable in 3D space, but allowing 2D objects to move along spline paths in XYZ space. i.e. to have text deform on a circular path around a character’s head, (so it looks bent and is always part obscured by the head) you simply draw a circular spline oriented in 3D space and attach a text object to it. More at:

I regret not having time to attend many panels, papers and courses – they’ve usually told me the research going on and what to expect in the next six months. My take? The digital revolution in entertainment and communication is replaced by an evolutionary march toward broader, faster, cheaper, better. SIGGRAPH ’93 showcased Jurassic Park made on SGI machines with Alias, Softimage and proprietary software. Pixar made shorts and commercials. AutoDesk sold 3D Studio DOS 4, new with IK features. The internet kiosk provided dedicated text-based terminals. Now almost every product is Wintel-based, digital technology dominates every phase of movie, broadcast, game, VizSim, and online activity, and I could connect to the net anywhere in the convention center with WiFi. Schools for targeted DCC training with veteran instructors are everywhere, and the discussion has moved to graduate degrees in VF/x.

A clear presentation of where we come from (for perspective), together with a notion that this is being delivered to more than the middle class and the techno-rich (a promise of more equal participation) offer some hope that the jewels of our industry might not just drive scientific advancement and commercial activity, but serve cultural appreciation and exchange. Taking stock of this industry, its history and effects lets us go forward with eyes open on how the product is used, as well as what voices can be heard.

Marc De Groot

I was stunned to learn this morning of the passing of Marc De Groot, age 45, a pioneer in VR and a Bay Area fixture in the VR community for many years.

Marc started working with VR in 1990. He was a senior staff engineer at VPL Research, the first commercial VR company. Marc was later the Chief Scientist at Ono-Sendai Corporation. Ono-Sendai's goal was to produce a networked VR consumer appliance, but they were years ahead of their time. He was also instrumental in the development of VRML, and went on to develop and promote Meme, an easy to use, small footprint web-VR development system, which he placed into the public domain.

Marc was energetic, smart, and always provacative in the best of ways. I enjoyed his company and felt that he was a thought leader in the community. I, and many others, will miss him greatly.

Here is the text of his obituary, as published in the San Francisco Chronicle of August 19, 2004:

DE GROOT, Marc - In Taos, NM, August 8, 2004. Age 45. Beloved son of Barbara and Louis de Groot; brother of David de Groot. Nephew, cousin and friend to many. Born in Brooklyn, NY on July 2, 1959, and grew up in Dutchess and Rockland Counties NY and Paris, France. Settled in the Bay Area in 1978. A too tender-hearted soul, mostly self educated, with a brilliant and inquisitive mind who was a mathematical wizard and pioneer in the use of Virtual Reality Modeling Language. Founder of Immersive Systems, Inc. Created Meme, a development system for virtual world software. He contributed to, without remuneration, the technology which had a huge impact on disabled children - that enabled them to move around in his virtual world using only their facial muscles or other input, and thereby broadened their horizons. Within minutes of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake he was at the disposal of SF General Hospital with his mobile amateur radio station to ensure their communications capability. Services were held at Rolling Hills Memorial Park, Richmond, CA. Donations to the Marc de Groot Mental Health Fund, c/o Oakland Jewish Philanthropical Foundation, 1850 Mount Diablo Boulevard, Suite 370, Walnut Creek, CA 94596-4423.

So long Marc. The VizSim community is poorer for your passing.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

3D manufacturing with a web interface? Why not?

I just saw this and think it's the coolest thing since sliced bread. Now you can design 3D parts, send your design over a web interface, and get a manufactured part back. This is not just for professionals, either. Check it out. Tres cool! World’s First Online Factory

Enables Instant Design and Delivery of Custom Mechanical Parts

Average 40 Hours of Engineering and Administrative Time For Single Custom Part Reduced to Only 15 Minutes

Midland Park, NJ – June 21, 2004 – eMachineShop ( is believed to be the world’s first online factory enabling any company, organization or individual to design, price, and instantly order any mechanical part. From initial contact to placing an order, the entire process takes as little as 15 minutes.

According to Jim Lewis, eMachineShop president, “Whether you are designing a new part or are in need for more of an existing part, getting custom parts is time consuming and costly. Until now, you had to buy and learn expensive and complex CAD software, make technical drawings, locate a machine shop, find a way to transmit the drawings to the machine shop, discuss the design with an accomplished machinist, sift through numerous price quotations, and eventually get your part – often paying much more than necessary while adding weeks of delay.”

As value of manufactured goods output reaches $1 trillion every month* online custom parts expected to grow exponentially

Mr. Lewis added, “eMachineShop is an innovative solution offering the easiest, most cost-effective way to turn ideas into real 3D parts at both prototype and production quantities. Whether for a new invention, an existing product or construction of a space rocket, eMachineShop revolutionizes the whole process. In just it’s first two quarters of operation, eMachineShop has produced parts for electronic panels, enclosures, signs, scientific devices, parts for airplanes, cars, motorcycles and trucks, ocean buoys, sensor mechanics and cameras.

“The value of manufactured goods in April, 2004 was $989 billion*. As the global economy continues to recover, online manufacturing services such as eMachineShop have enormous potential. Barely out of the starting gate, eMachineShop has already processed nearly 1,000 orders,” Mr. Lewis commented.

eMachineShop at-a-glance

To begin, users download eMachineShop’s free CAD software. During the design phase, eMachineShop’s automated machining expert analyses the shape, material and finish to keep the user informed of any physical limitations, thereby making it easy for engineers and non-technical people to successfully design parts.

A built-in software expert system provides step-by-step guidance through the process, often totally eliminating the need for expensive engineering support and the associated delays, saving even more time and money. For example, if a sheet metal bend is too close to an edge, the software will advise the user in seconds.

A 3D preview helps visualize the final part before ordering. From the customer’s screen to delivery at the customer’s door, eMachineShop takes care of everything totally transparently. “Although not as fast, it’s almost like the transporter in Star Trek,” said Mr. Lewis.

eMachineShop currently offers CNC milling, turning, punching, blanking, laser cutting, plastic extrusion, thermoforming, tapping, bending, water jet cutting, wire EDM and will soon add injection molding. Surface finishes include brushing, plating, powder coating, anodizing, polishing, grinding, and more. Materials range from a broad selection of metals, plastics, woods, composites and others.

eMachineShop is a subsidiary of Micro Logic, a privately held technology organization located at 666 Godwin Avenue, Midland Park, NJ 07432. Telephone 201-447-9120. Web site:

*National Association of Manufacturers, Statistics section,

Thursday, August 12, 2004

SIGGRAPH 2004 - Day 4

SIGGRAPH, Wednesday, night four, Los Angeles – Today I completed my tour of the exhibit floor, and didn’t find much more that was really interesting. SIGGRAPH has continued to be a show of evolutionary progress. Yes, the graphics boards are blazingly fast. Yes, the trackers are better and less expensive. Yes, the computers are better and less expensive. But where in past years we would find amazing progress from year to year, now, and for the past few years, we see only incremental change. A good thing, yes, but not particularly exciting, and not much to write home about.

But don’t give up hope. I did see a very interesting program that adds AI to motion or keyframe data to make much more realistic motion than either type of data alone.

The program, from Natural Motion, is called endorphin. (Brief rant: Why do marketing directors think it is cool to use lower-case letter for product names? It sure makes it hard to write about them. Oh well.) Endorphin accepts mocap or keyframe information, and allow you to add smart behaviors to it on a timeline, something like video editing. For example, instead of a pushed figure just falling over, it may stagger, throw out its arms to break the fall, or curl up into a fetal position. Or it may do all three. And if the direction of the motive force changes, the behaviors change appropriately. The package also enables multiple characters to interact, demonstrated as a football tackle that was extremely believable. This system creates extremely natural-looking actions, and seems to be quite easy to use. I compared Endorphin to some other systems, and it seemed to deliver much better looking actions.

Finally, tonight I attended the Electronic Theater, where SIGGRAPH presents what it considers the very best animation of the previous year. This year’s program was the strongest in a long time, and included three good scientific examples, which I think are very important, and in recent years pretty much ignored.

I also enjoyed a short piece called Rock the World, which showed George W. Bush, Colin Powell, and other members of the current US administration playing rock music. It was very tongue in cheek, and very funny.

Finally, Chris Landreth showed his latest work, the much-anticipated Ryan. This piece tells the tragic story of Ryan Larkin, a pioneering animator who fell into the abyss of drug addiction, and now survives by panhandling on the streets of Montreal. Landreth interviewed Larkin at length, and made a sort of animated documentary about the guy. The animation has the classic Landreth magic, and this story is very moving. Frankly, I think this is one of the best films of any sort I have seen in a long time, and I’ll stick my neck out and predict it will garner an Academy Award. I think Landreth has fortified his position as one of the most inventive and evocative story tellers alive, in any medium. If you get a chance, see Ryan. And if you get a chance, go back and see The End and Bingo, two of Landreth’s earlier works that are the foundation for the incredible surrealistic style and methods he employs in Ryan. This is great work.

Tomorrow is the last day for SIGGRAPH, and I will report on it only if I see something new or exciting. I hope you have found these reports valuable. I welcome your comments and suggestions. Be well.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

SIGGRAPH 2004 - Day 3

SIGGRAPH, Tuesday, night three, Los Angeles – The conference exhibit opened today, and the crowds must have been a big relief to the SIGGRAPH committee. Talk yesterday was that there didn’t seem to be many people around. However, this is typical for Mondays at SIGGRAPH, as the people who are there are there for the tutorials and other presentations. That means they are in the meeting rooms, and out of sight. Today, they were around, and the exhibit hall was crowded all day. Here’s a picture of the hall that gives you an idea of the crowds.

My first appointment of the day was with Oregon 3D (O3D) president Aaron Boonshoft, (Disclosure: I have worked with Oregon 3D in the past.) O3D is a training and visualization facility in Portland Oregon. Aaron told me that O3D will begin offering an Urban Planning Simulation curricula this fall. This is possibly the first private training organization to offer this increasingly important option. Simulation is being used in Urban Planning as both a conventional planning tool, and also as part of security preparations. I think this course offering marks an important step in vocational education.

An interesting note on how the pecking order at SIGGRAPH changes: this year the two biggest booths on the floor are those of Apple Computer and Alias. SGI has a barely larger than average exhibit, a sad commentary on the changes that have left many of the leading graphics companies of a few years ago sitting in the dust. And by the way, in place of the SGI iron that used to dominate the floor at SIGGRAPH, one is seeing Apple systems all over the place. I guess their switch the UNIX-based OS X has paid of in the graphics community.

Speaking of Apple’s computers, I went to an introductory presentation tonight by a company named Luxology LLC, based in San Mateo, California. They showed an impressive new 3D modeling program called modo, that was incredibly fast, running on dual-processor G5s. Modo was designed, they told us, after extensive consultation with 3D modelers using a variety of programs. The team that put modo together is comprised of Lightwave graduates, and seemed to be aiming directly at the Maya market, as modo exports in Maya format. I’m not a 3D modeler, but I have seen plenty of demos, and I can assure you that this program is fast, and it looks like its functionality is high and ease of use exceptional. Modo is due out this fall in Mac and Windows versions, and priced at $895, has the potential to be a winner in the heavily fragmented 3D modeling marketplace.

Two thoughts on displays at SIGGRAPH. First, this seems to be the year of autostereoscopic displays (ASDs). The Web3D Consortium has a half a dozen LCD-based ASDs from different manufacturers in their booth; Actuality Systems and Lightspace are showing their volumetric displays; and Kodak is showing their mirror-based system. (Disclosure: Kodak is a current client of mine.) This year’s CyberEdge report on the VizSim/VR Market showed that 7.6% of our respondents bought or sold ASDs, and I think they are starting to become a significant part of the display market.

Finally, I saw a very interesting multi-LCD display system from Seamless Display. They assemble three (or almost any number) of thin-bezel LCDs behind a proprietary lens set that spans all of the monitors. The lenses hide the bezels and make the display look like one large monitor. This is a fairly simple concept, but it looks great. Here’s a picture.

That’s it for today. Tomorrow, I continue to prowl the exhibits, and see the Electronic Theater program. I’ll let you know what I find.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

SIGGRAPH 2004 – Day 2

SIGGRAPH, Monday, night two, Los Angeles – Today was my day for casing the convention center to see where things are and start checking out the show. I ran into my old friend Jeff Abouaf, a great artist and 3D Studio Max expert ( and we went through the Emerging Technologies area together. We also listened to Bruce Stirling speak for a bit, and frankly, we were both amazed and what a pointless bunch of hot air he had to spew. I frankly had no idea what he was talking about, but he sure went on (and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and…)

Anyway, perhaps the most notable item in Emerging Technologies was the nationality of what seemed like a majority of the presenters. It seemed that every exhibit was staffed by Japanese students. This raises the question: what is happening in America’s schools? Are our students turned off to computers, or, as I think is more likely, are we seeing the result of years of denigrating education, turning out increasingly ill-informed, and frankly ignorant kids. I am increasingly appalled by our de-emphasis of education in the USA, and extremely worried that we are throwing away our future by refusing to educate our children. We need to put money in to our education system, or else we will live to see a future of ever-worse decision-making made by ever-stupider political, business, and civic leaders. End of rant.

On of my favorite exhibits in the Emerging Technologies gallery was from Hiroo Iwata’s University of Tsukuba lab. I am a long-time fan of Dr. Iwata-san’s work. His lab has consistently demonstrated some of the most creative, and often frankly weird, interface devices shown at SIGGRAPH. This year, his team is showing a device, called CirculaFloor, that allows one to walk (somewhat normally) in a virtual world. This is accomplished by having three moving platforms, each about 3 inches high and about 24 inches square, upon which one steps, one foot on each. The trick is that as one steps off the last platform, into thin air, the third one rolls around to place itself in front of the one from which you are stepping, putting itself under your descending foot. It’s damn weird, but incredibly clever, and a lot of fun. I’m not sure what a real-life application of this system would be, but once again, Iwata-san’s team has shown one of the most imaginative and out-of-the-box concepts at the show. Click here to see a brief QuickTime movie of the device in action. (Note: this is a 5.7 MB file.)

Another very cool exhibit, called Swimming Across the Pacific, was developed by Human Communications Technologies Lab at the University of British Columbia. This is a VR system, inspired by a stunt in which a swimmer swam in a pool aboard an ocean liner as it traversed the Atlantic. A team lead by Sidney Fels developed a system in which a head-mounted display-wearing user is suspended in a hang-glider harness with position sensors (from Polhemus) attached to his arms, legs, and head. Hoisted into the air, the victim, I mean user, then is able to swim, seeing his progress as water splashes around him in a realistic manner. Screens allow spectators to see that the water responds to the speed and violence of the swimmer’s motions. An interesting application, with potential application as a training system. Here's a picture of the Swimming system.

Finally, two duds. As usual, the SIGGRAPH art show is a complete disappointment. The art mostly seems trite and derivative, and if it hadn’t been made with computers, would be completely unworthy of note. Well, actually, it is almost all completely unworthy of note.

The other dud was the Realtime 3DX: Demo or Die presentation. This was the remnant of the Web 3D Roundup, with far less funding. However, the production, MC’d by Sandy Nessler, was fine, and the new scoring system, which used laser pointers to point at yes or no choices for each demo was innovative and fun. But by in large the presentations were uninteresting and/or impractical, and most looked like things we saw five or ten years ago, but with better graphics. It’s no wonder that 3D on the web hasn’t taken off – no has to this day figured out what to do with it.

Tomorrow is the first day of the exhibit, which I feel is the most valuable part of SIGGRAPH. I’ll be reporting then what I saw that was great, or not.

Monday, August 09, 2004

SIGGRAPH 2004 - Day 1

SIGGRAPH, Sunday, night one, Los Angeles – I got in late tonight after flying down form Oakland. Thought I’d check out the Fig, the Figeroa Hotel, always the hot spot when SIGGRAPH is in LA. Tonight, unexpectedly, there was a party, sponsored by Ars Electronica, the Austrian art and technology conference held in Linz in September. I ran into my old friend Christian Bauer, as well as Michael Naimark, Gerfried Stocker, and Christine Schöpf, all involved with the festival. It was good to catch up with them.

Ars Electronica was a leading edge meeting, but in the past few years has been plagued by weak themes and questionable art. This year they brought in Michael Naimark, who is perhaps best known for the Movie Map created years ago as one of the first interactive, computer-mediated video pieces. Michael is putting together a program addressing the ways technology will change society in 25 years – an appropriate number as the festival itself is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

I am staying this year at the Milner Hotel on Flower street. It is just about five blocks from the Convention Center, and while not at all “cool”, reminds me of many European businessman’s hotels I’ve stayed at. It’s clean and comfortable, and breakfast is included, as it should be at any civilized place of lodging. The room is small, but all I do is sleep there, so I don’t care. Rates are reasonable, and the location is fine. Next time you’re in LA, check it out.

© 2004 Ben Delaney