Siggraph '83; the graphics event of the year. Tim Onosko.
In an industry where a year can span two generations of development, the sheer longevity of an annual event like Siggraph is enough to qualify it as a "classic." For those unfamiliar with the word, Siggraph stands for Special Interest Group for graphics, part of the professional group, the Association for Computing Machinery. And, as computer graphics have become increasingly important to computing, so has each year's Siggraph conference.
Siggraph is a unique gathering of computer scientists, engineers, and eartists. One part of the event is its serious side: The introductory courses in computer graphics and the presentation of papers and examples of work in technical sessions. These cover diverse topics, from office automation and computer aided design/manufacturing (CAD/CAM), to film special effects and animation. Another important element of Siggraph is its exhibition of computers and systems--most of them of prices far beyond the reach of almost every individual in attendance.
Though the talk is often technical and the pricetags large, Siggraph still retains a heavy emphasis on art and artists. The recent addition of a large and impressive art show reinforces that emphasis, as do the annual shows of computer-generated film and video works. Siggraph is still very much an event in which jeans and t-shirts seem as appropriate as business suits and ties.
Most significantly, however, Siggraph is a place to see and hear about the future. Many of the ideas and much of the technology showcased here will eventually reach our own homes, one way or another.
This year's Siggraph computer graphics conference was held from July 25 to July 29 in Detroit, MI. Here are some improessions taken from it.
About 600 people showed up at the first Siggraph conference, held in Boulder, CO in 1974. Since then, attendance has climbed to over 17,000 in 1982. (Attendance was down in 1983 to about 14,500.) Some 1983 conferees proudly wore their veteran status on their chests in the form of badges, ribbons, and t-shirts from previous Siggraphs.
It was easy to play the "badge game" while walking Detroit's Cobo Hall convention facility. People came from around the world, from major colleges and universities, from industry and from the new glamour companies--the film studios and television production houses.
Despite the welcome diversity of people and topics at Siggraph, the conference is somewhat schizophrenic by nature. Some examples: One gentleman sent by his employer, the torpedo division of a major defense contractor, apparently wasn't told about the wide range of personalities to be expected, and was staggered by the counter-culture types wandering about.
Likewise, examples of sophisticated new imaging techniques on display during the evening film shows were greeted with loud boos and hisses when they came from the defense community. And, while a group of artists argued that the randomness of real life must somehow be integrated into computer-generated film and art, an auto industry executive called for increased precision in the CAD systems used to design his cars. The Microcomputer Role
Surprisinly, although microcomputers make up a major part of the computer industry, few were visible at Siggraph. In fact, no single aspect of the conference was oriented to microcomputers and their users. One attempt, an ad hoc call for those interested in small computers and the arts, drew several dozen people, but yielded little more than a session in which everyone introduced themselves and their interests, then broke up into disorganization. It was ironic, too, that few people in this meeting actually owned microcomputers. Many came out of curiosity; more than a few said they were artists looking for jobs.
The organizers of Siggraph would do well to consider an appeal to users of small computers, perhaps by establishing courses and events devoted to advancements in the micro field. Or would this add yet another disparate element to a conference with many already? Courses And Sessions
According to a walking around poll, some courses and technical sessions were extremely well-received at Siggraph '83.
A two-day "Introduction to Computer Animation" featured speakers from the New York Institute of Technology, perhaps the most respected group involved in both two-dimensional and three-dimensional (solid-looking) animation. The group also included alumnus Alvy Ray Smith, one of the leaders of the Lucasfilm computer graphics project. In the past, Smith has delivered his in-depth talk about color theory. This year, he chose, instead, to speak about how objects can be mathematically described using a technique known as splines.
A new course, entitled "The Artist/Designer and Computer Graphics" boasted a similarly prestigious panel, including Dr. James Blinn, artist David Em, and Richard Taylor. It is Blinn who is responsible for the beautiful computer-generated movie visualizations of NASA's planetary exploration program, particularly the Voyager missions. (Without these, NASA would be practically without a public product to show, its spacecraft millions of miles away from earth.) David Em is an independent artist who uses Blinn's computers and software for his own work. Richard Taylor is an art director, film effects specialist, and computer animator best known for his work on Walt Disney Productions' Tron. Late of MAGI Synthavision, a computer animation company, Taylor has recently gone to Lucasfilm, where he is to work on The Grid, a film in preproduction there.
On the more practical side, a session on "Graphics in Office Automation" drew well, reflecting the increasing interest in using computers for constructing "information graphics" in management. This is obviously a topic that continues to yield new developments, including the use of laser printers with computers to establish a kind of electronic publishing industry.
Of the technical sessions, two on computer graphics in Japan drew well. These, organized by Laurin Herr of Pacific Interface, a company specializing in Japanese/U.S. corporate relations, included representatives of Japanese computer companies and artist Yoichiro Kawaguchi, famous for his fantastically organic computer-generated abstractions. More about Kawaguchi and his colleagues later.
Maybe the most intriguing topic discussed at the technical sessions had nothing to do with either art or commerce. Radiologist Dr. Michael Vannier, plastic surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Marsh and James Warren of the McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Company outlined their pioneering techniques in the reconstruction of the human face using computer graphics and fabrication. Developed at Washington University Medical Center, the St. Louis Children's Hospital and McDonnel Douglas, it has already been used to plan corrective surgery for more than 350 patients whose deformities wee caused by cancer, birth defects, or traumatic injuries.
Vannier, who was a NASA engineer before becoming a radiologist, uses CAT scan images to arrive at a 3-D image of the entire skull, inside and out. With these extremely accurate images, plastic parts can be fashioned and installed into the human head to replace bone and soft tissue lost because of surgery or missing by birth defect. This is a truly important medical technique and one that impressively demonstrates the potential of computer imaging systems. On The Show Floor
Touring the Siggraph hardware show can be an agonizing experience. So much of it is unattainable on a personal level. This is a show for buyers with corporate backing. Many of the machines on display are image systems dependent on large mainframe computers for their operation. Indeed, this technology will trickle down to personal computer users, but, for now, is devoted to those who can affort it. Still, some products and companies stand out from the crowd.
Cray Research whose legendary Cray-1 supercomputer wasn't even on display, had a booth, but never really expected to sell a single machine. Cray computers sell for more than $10 million, and fewer than 50 are installed world-wide. Cray was there to remind people that realistic, three-dimensional images require the kind of massive computing power than only a Cray can deliver. (For example, a TRS-80 was recently benchmarked against a Cray-1. Result, the Cray performed approximately 1.6 million times faster than the little Radio Shack machine.) The company distributed very nice, photographically-real portraits of its machine, generated, of course, by a Cray-1 at John Whitney, Jr.'s Digital Productions, "Imagine what you could do with a Cray," suggested the headline.
At the other end of the scale were several graphics products for microcomputers. Most of these appear to be built around an increasingly popular microchip designed especially for graphics, the NEC 7220. Look to this chip to be used more and more in personal computer graphic displays. (Intel's American version of the chip, the 87220 is expected shortly and may be at the heart of IBM's rumored superior graphics board for the PC.)
Number Nine is a company whose name was inspired, according to a spokesman, by a Beatles song. It makes add-on graphics boards for the Apple II and the ibm PC. It offers resolution of up to 1024 by 1024 pixels per screen in up to 256 simultaneous colors selected from a palette of more than 16 million colors. It is priced at about $900 for the Apple version, slightly more for the IBM PC. Software, developed by Visual Data Enterprises for the system, is extra.
Another company, Cubicomp, introduced a high quality graphics system. Its model CS-5 is designed to calculated and display solid-looking screen graphics with a resoltuion of 512 by 512 pixels in up to 4096 simultaneous colors, or enough points and colors to produce pictures of photographic realism. Aimed at industrial and professional users, it is priced at about $9000.
Almost as impressive at about half the price is the Vectrix VX384. This is a true graphics subsystem, a box to which virtually any microcomputer can sent data. At Siggraph, the Vectrix was demonstrated with an Apple workalike machine and a Kaypro portable with a hard disk drive. Screen images were very comparable to the quality of much more expensive systems seen on the exhibit floor. The resolution of the Vectrix is 672 by 480 pixels in up to 512 colors selected from a 16 million-color palette. Where Was Lisa?
It was something of a puzzle why Apple Computer cancelled their exhibit booth; its Lisa is by far the best-known graphic microcomputer. (Apple was a Siggraph, though, recruiting for Lisa software designers.) This didn't mean that shoppers weren't reminded of Lisa. Several manufacturers showed Lisa-like "window" systems, including a company called Pixel and Sun Microsystems, who boasted that Lucasfilms had selected Sun for its graphic workstations. Pixel's machine, the Pixel 80G is an extremely powerful graphic computer system. Both companies use a fast and powerful 68000 microprocessor.
Pixel, which calls its machine a "supermicrocomputer" uses a vertically-oriented screen with the astounding resolution of 2048 pixels across by 4096 pixels down. Its black and white image is as close to a printed page as you are likely to see on a computer. Pixel's demonstration showed a line of readable type so small that it looked like nothing more than a blurred line, until you pressed your nose to the video screen. The Pxiel 80 system will support two of these graphics terminals or 16 conventional terminals running under the increasingly popular Unix operating system. Holography
Some displays on the exhibit floor showed true three-dimensional graphics, not just shaded solids. A Southfield, MI company, Dimension Research, demonstrated an excellent hologram derived from computer-generated views. Lee Lacey, a veteran holographer, explained that this image plane hologram--appropriately a CAD-designed auto part--was produced from a series of discrete views drawn on a plotter and photographed on 35mm film. Other computer-synthesized holographic images by Chicago artists Dan Sandin and John Huffman were shown at the Siggraph art show.
Though the holograms at this edition of Siggraph were simple-looking line and wire frame images, it is obvious that synthesized pictures of greater detail and clarity are on the way. The marriage of holography and computer graphics seems a perfect one.
A group of San Rafael, CA artists and engineers insist there is no need to wait for holography to be further perfected. Lenny Lipton, a filmmaker and proponent of 3-D systems, is the prime mover behind the company, Stereographics, Inc., which includes Lhary Meyer, an electronics designer formerly with Lucasfilm. Stereographics' system is a simple one that alternates left- and right-eye images (two are needed for true 3-D on a video screen in rapid sequences.
The screenis viewed through glassess--more like goggles in the demonstrated version--containing electro-optical shutters synchronized with the screen by a wire connection to a black box. These are not mechanical shutters, but tiny electronic elements buried in the lenses of the glasses. A 3-D video system developed by Japan's Matsushita Electric worked the same way and is used in a video arcade game, Sub-Roc. But that earlier system suffered from distinct flickering, which Stereographics' system has eliminated.
The system works very well, despite an apparent reduction of screen resolution. Clips of new 3-D video material, microphotography, a segment from the 1953 3-D classic, House of Wax and a 3-D video game screen generated by an Apple computer were shown. (Lipton and company won't say how that flicker is removed, but there appears to be a modification in the number of lines actually scanned on the video screen.)
Lhary Meyer claims that the electronics--the black box--for signal processing and synchronization, and the glasses, can be manufactured cheap enough to make the system a consumer product. Furthermore, Lipton says the glasses can be made wireless by using infra-red light to synchronize the system.
If there was a drea system on display at the Siggraph exhibition, it was Images, offered by Computer Graphics Lab, Inc., the commercial arm of the New York Institute of Technology. Essentially, this is the same system that NYIT uses to produce its 2-D and solid-looking animation, and includes its famous Paint and Tween software which runs on DEC PDP-11 and Vax computers. Paint is used to create images, while Tween performs the task of an animator's assistant, interpolating the positions of an image between key frames. Another program, Tweep, colors each frame.
Other aspects of the Images system allow the artist or animator to add airbrushstyle shading, produce mechanical drawings using software drafting tools and manipulate the hues and shades of the 16 million-color palette. It will also allow images from real life to be scanned with a color video camera, then integrated into the digital scene, or even "mapped" onto surfaces. (A similar mapping technique can be seen in a current rock video clip produced by NYIT, "Adventures in Success with Will Powers." In it, a trio of singing masks rotates on the screen, a female face mapped on the inside, as well as outside, of each one.)
To date, Computer Graphics Lab has sold four systems in various configurations. Among the customers are a Japanese film company using theirs to produce a feature film version of the "Lensman" science fiction novels by "Doc" Smith. Nolan Bushnell's Pizza Time Theater company will use its 2-D system to produce "Saturday morning" style cartoons based on the characters originated at the eatery chain. Film and Video
The flm and video shows at Siggraph are legendary events which highlight the best electronically produced film and video of the year. With enough audio, video, and laser equipment to rival a major rock show, the multi-screen show is an attraction all by itself. Large crowds of 3000 to 5000 assembled in Cobo Arena for two different presentations which were preceded by laser shows from the Wisconsin-based Laser Fantasy group.
The Siggraph film audiences are unique. The crowd doesn't just ooh and ahh, but recognizes specific techniques used in the computer pictures. It is not unusual, then, to hear comments like "great ray-tracing," or "good fractals," both of which refer to the mathematics used in producing the images. And when the fans see something outstanding, they stomp and cheer wildly. Siggraph, in fact, is probably the only place where audiences applaud individual shots in films.
Most of the films and video reels are assemblages of visual experiments and demonstrations of specific techniques, without plot or story. Many are abstract or boldly geometric exercises. There is so much of this beauty for beauty's sake that NYIT's Lance Williams has nicknamed it Doily-vision.
There were so many films shown in two nights that it would be impossible to review or summarize each one in this space. A few important ones do deserve special mention, though.
"ACT IIIc was produced by New York artists Dean Winkler and John Sandborn using a Via Video painting system and several digital video effects systems (the kind used to produce television commercials). A whirling, six minute-long kaleidoscope of shapes, it seemed a perfect visualization of the Philip Glass music it was set against. This was probably the best unified video piece in that it reached beyond experimentation and simple exercise.
Several demonstration reels were extremely well received. Cranston/Csuri Productions, a commercial offshoot of the computer graphics project at Ohio State University, displayed an exceptional reel which included very impressive examples of shaded and transparent geometric objects. The reel from a relatively young computer images company, Pacific Data Images of Sunnyvale, CA, showed a keen sense of art direction in a specially-created Siggraph logo and in a short segment titled "Teddy Bear Maelstrom." In the latter, digital bears looking as though they were constructed from balloons cavorted on a circular track in space to a synthesized version of the "Teddy Bear's Picnic."
Other commercial demo reels included work from Robert Abel & Associates, a pioneering company best known for its Levis and Seven-Up ads, Bo Gehring Associates, which included a scene from the feature Nightmares (video games gone berzerk) and Digital Effects, Inc. Produced by Judson Rosebush, who was responsible for the character of the Bit in Disney's Tron, the Digital Effects reel offered, by far, the sharpest, cleanest imagery in the shows. Z-Grass
Not every film was produced using million-dollar computer hardware. One, "OUA OUA" (from an old Hawaiian tune), used the simple effect of a mirror image singing face to a humorous effect. Several examples of Z-Grass animation were shown, including "Floater" by Jane Veeder, "Only Eyes" by Margret Rawlings and "Nuke the Duke" by Charles Kesler and Jaap Postma.
Z-Grass is a graphics computer language developed by Tom DeFanti, one of the founders of Siggraph, and uses relatively inexpensive hardware based on a Z 80 microprocessor. Low-cost hardware is also used by Movie Maker software, a demonstration of which was also shown. The program, developed by Guy Nouri and Eric Podietz of Interactive Picture Systems, New York, currently runs on the Atari personal computers and is being prepared for the Apple II, IBM PC, and Commodore 64 as well. Its results show that it is a perfect introductory tool for artists and animators interested in beginning to learn about computer pictures.
Atari and Lucasfilm submitted examples for the film shows. In 1982, Lucasfilm showed their "Genesis Effect" clip from Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn, a true achievement in computer effects. This year's clip was less impressive, the computer map effects from one scene of Return of the Jedi. Atari's offering was almost embarrassing. It was a clip from Superman III featuring comparatively crude video game-like animation. There seemed to be some question as to why it was even shown with other works of much higher quality. Japanese Entries
Special mention must be made of three Japanese works shown at this year's SIGGRAPH. "Origami," produced by NHK (the national television network) Special Programs Division, was a lyrical film about the art of paper folding, its geometry perfectly suited to computer techniques. "Mandala 1983" was produced and directed by Toyohiko Higashi and Masaki Fujihata for the Deibu Promotion Network. It was another strongly geometric work whose best image was a tray of multi-colored crystal balls generated on a Cray-1 supercomputer.
Finally, the masterwork o the show was "Growth: Mysterious Galaxy" created by Yoichiro Kawaguchi. Kawaguchi's growth algorithms (descriptive mathematical formulae) perfectly blend aesthetic design and sophisticated computer science to produce a distinct organic effect. Kawaguchi is one of the pioneers these techniques and is apparently their undisputed master. Show Stopper
Again, the strong showing of the New York Institute of Technology must be noted. Its deomonstration reel, and accumulation of experimental and commercial work from the previous year, was, as always, a show stopper, elicting howls of glee and noisy appreciation. Virtually each scene in the 11-minute reel was greeted with enthusiastic response.
Included in the reel were new openings for CBS television sporting events and Home Box Office commercial logos, the rock video mentioned earlier, and an except from Twyla Tharp's video dance piece, "The Catherine Wheel." Also seen were segments from three NYIT in-house productions: "The Mouse's Ear," a surrealistic cartoon being developed by Duane Palkya and "3-DV," an extremely funny clip from a proposed television special featuring a silly all-robot cast.
Last, but certainly not least, a few more minutes from NYIT's long-running feature project, "The Works." Its main characters, again, are robots, the most famous of which is a giant machine which looks and works like an ant. New this year was the addition of a one-legged hopping robot welder.
The first new minutes of "The Works" debuted at Siggraph several years ago, and only a few more have been added over the years. This lends some doubt that the film will ever be finished, acknowledged by the in-joke t-shirts prematurely advertising a sequel, "The Works II." Lance Williams cites the difficulty in producing a few new minutes of the films, since they must be sandwiched in with continuing research and commercial projects. And, he says, there is no money for real production to proceed with "The Works" or "'3-DV." Still it is almost impossible to believe that these fantastic works can go any longer without funding. They seem to be solidly commercial ideas.
It is clear that NYIT is virtually (and single-handedly) defining the genre of computer animation. We can only hope that advances in technology and software development will bring the group the kind of economic rewards and public appreciation it deserves.
One historical note: NYIT dedicated its 1983 Detroit Siggraph reel, appropriately and with a note of cynicism, to the United Auto Workers. Pricing Itself Out Of The Market?
Siggraph is a spectacular event, and one of genuine importance to the industrial, academic, and commercial worlds of computing. It is, however, in danger of losing its preeminence?
Already, a competing conference sponsored by the National Computer Graphics Association may be stealing some of Siggraph's thunder. The NGGA show and conference, held in Chicago a month before Siggraph, reportedly drew over 24,000 people.
One sorry suggestion is that Siggraph may be too expensive for many to attend. The cost of attending courses ranges from $125 for students, to $410 for late registrants who are not members of the ACM. Technical sessions cost from $35 to $290. Siggraph-furnished lunches sell for an outlandish $20, and course notes and copies of the papers delivered seem overpriced at $280 for a complete set of notes and papers.
Too, the Japanese have shown remarkable advances in computer graphics and a commitment to develop both new hardware and programming techniques. This year, the Japanese will hold their own version of Siggraph, sponsored by their own recently-formed organization, Nicograph (Nippon Computer Graphics). Nicograph and Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Nikkei, Japan's business newspaper and publishing company) has hosted parties at the last two Siggraph conferences, attracting the cream of the American graphic talent. Nikkei is also behind a Computer Graphics Grand Prix competition, which offers, not just the honor of having works shown, as Siggraph does, but significant cash prizes for the best computer-generated film and video.
A lesson might also be learned from the support that Nicograph has gathered in its own country. The importance of computer graphics to Japanese industry is evident from the list of Nicograph's counselors, which includes the presidents of Nissan Motor Co. (Datsun), Fuji Film, Victor Company of Japan (JVC), Casio Computer, Sord Computer, IBM Japan, Nippon Steel, Ricoh, and the mammoth Matsushita Electric (Panasonic).
Also associated with the group are Kasuhiro Fuchi, the director of ICOT Research Center (the Institute for New Generation Computer Technology); Isao Tomita, the famous electronic composer; Sakyo Komatsu, Japan's best-known science fiction author; and Dr. Shigeru Watanabe, president of the national Japan Microcomputer Club. With this support, it is clear that the Japanese intend to establish a leadership position in the graphics field.
It is to be hoped that, in light of the competition both at home and abroad, that Siggraph can maintain its claim as the world's premier computer graphics event. To do so, however, may take some work and even newer ideas.