I had the opportunity to travel to Vancouver to attend the SIGGRAPH 2014 conference. After more than 20 hours of traveling, I was shocked to find out that South Park is lying: Canadians actually don’t have those floppy heads and the cars did not have square wheels, either.
SIGGRAPH is the premier conference on computer graphics, with some 20 000 attendees. Having been used to much smaller conferences, it was weird that you could sometimes walk around for the whole day without bumping into anyone you had met previously. My area of interest is in real-time graphics and simulation, so it was a slight disappointment that the focus of the conference was more in movie effects than I had expected. Despite that, the event had more than enough content for me to absorb, often having three overlapping sessions of interest to choose from.
Naturally, one of the main attractions for me were the research papers. Each paper was introduced in 30 seconds in the fast forward session. Seeing more than a hundred awesome and very visual breakthroughs in action in such a short time really left me in awe. Asimov’s famous quote on technology and magic had never felt more concrete. To mention just a few of the memorable papers:
- a method for deducing the soundscape from the visual vibrations on a bag of chips, well enough to actually understand what was being spoken
- creating a plausible animation of objects thrown on the floor to match an existing audio recording
- a unified simulation framework that works for liquids, gases, cloth, rigid bodies, and deformable solids and lets them all interact with each other – in real time
- very real-looking simulations of melting chocolate bunnies
There were several other interesting sessions besides the papers. Courses ranged from introduction to computer graphics to the very technical Advances in Real-time Rendering course, where people from top game studios tell each other what is new in their game engines. The problem with the courses was that they invariably tried to cover too much base in such a short time, e.g., moving on to introduce scientific papers after an hour of basic math. But at least I found out what I don’t know, and the course notes are available for a more thorough study afterwards.
The talks by industry members describing how things are done in the companies were very interesting. They included very detailed information on the making of special effects in various movies. In fact, I noted that of the six movies that were offered as pay-per-view on my flight back, four had had a ”how we did it” session in the conference. The attention to detail in the movies is unbelievable, e.g. a White House history specialist was hired for X-Men: Days of Future Past so the trees around White House in 1973 could be modeled with historical accuracy. Or how about doing a complex physics simulation for some chains on a ship for a 1-second shot where most of the chains ended up on the other side of the ship, so you can’t really even see them?
The keynote by Elliot Kotek from Not Impossible was about tinkering for a good cause. They had, for example, a project where they went to Sudan armed with 3D printers to create artificial limbs for children who had been crippled by war. It was pretty impressive that they teached the locals to use the equipment and even after they left, the production continued at a pace of some two limbs per week. In general they showed that a few volunteers of the maker community can solve real problems, sometimes resulting in solutions that are an order of magnitude cheaper than the commercially available ones.
The conference also included hands-on demonstrations of many interesting concepts, such as
- Birdly, a bird simulator where you actually lie on a turning table wearing Oculus Rift and physically flapping your hands to fly,
- a tool for teaching programming by combining small, programmable physical blocks to be combined with Lego Mindstorm,
- a display formed by levitating small objects using an acoustic-potential field,
- a way to quadruple the number of pixels in a display by putting two screens on top of each other, displaced by half a pixel in each direction and then doing some math.
The conference was so intense that I barely had time to check out the city. Downtown is clean and beautiful, yet lively. The ocean vistas are breathtaking, and there is a nice, large park just north of downtown. I also heard the nature in the mountains around the city is absurdly wonderful, but I only had time to catch a small glimpse of it.
All in all, SIGGRAPH seems unbeatable if you want to get an overview of what is happening in computer graphics and related fields. Digesting all that information will take quite some time.