Content Creation Europe - September 1999

SIGGRAPH Showcases Small World of Computer Graphics
By Sheldon Liebman

For anyone who has ever been to a SIGGRAPH show, this year's affaire, held from August 10-12 in Los Angeles, CA, recaptured some of the energy that seemed to be missing in recent years. Although final attendance figures were not available at press time, the show seemed to have a higher attendance and the people who attended appeared more eager to learn and to buy. On the other hand, the number of exhibitors was clearly lower, while the actual space occupied by those companies may have actually been higher than last year's exhibition.

Mergers played some part in this trend, as Discreet Logic and Kinetix shared a booth, Transoft was part of the Hewlett-Packard exhibit, Play was combined with Electric Image, and many other companies appeared under new names. Another factor in this trend is clearly the size increase of individual booths. Just a few years ago, the largest exhibit at SIGGRAPH was probably only 15 meters square, but the largest booth at this year's show was occupied by Intel and measured over 20 meters (70 feet) in each direction. In fact, it is quite possible that the largest 15 exhibits occupied more total space than the entire SIGGRAPH show of 10 years ago.

With fewer exhibits to see, the show seemed more manageable than in past years, but it was also more difficult for smaller companies to get noticed. In many cases, they appeared on the periphery of the exhibition area or on aisles that didn't connect from the front to the back of the hall due to the monster booths around them.

Rather than trying to cover all the companies and products that were presented, we'll focus here on some of the more pronounced trends from the show. Over the next few months, we'll fill you in on more of the news from the show.

Motion Capture Creates a Commotion
At the NAB show earlier this year, it seemed that everywhere you turned, you ran into a company offering virtual sets or video servers. At SIGGRAPH, that feeling could be related to motion capture products. There are a number of different technologies to capture motion including wired sensors, optical sensors and metal appliances. In every aisle, at least one of these technologies was on display and in some cases, more than one. The two big vendors of optical systems were Santa Rosa, CA-based Motion Analysis and Tustin, CA-based Vicon Motion Systems. The advantage of these systems is that the actor being captured only has to wear very light sensors that are picked up by infrared cameras. This means the motion of the subjects is not restricted and they are free to move about however they want.

On the other hand, specialized staging is required to ensure that the cameras have an unobstructed view of the actors being captured. This staging is not required with wired and wireless systems provided by companies like Ascension Technology (Burlington, VT), Puppet Works (Ontario, Canada), and X-IST Realtime Technologies GmbH (Huerth, Germany).

All of these products interface with the most popular animation programs so that captured data can easily be applied to 3D models.

Building Models is a Blast
If motion capture systems make is easier to move objects around, laser scanning offers a similar leap forward when it comes to building those models. Every 3D animation system incorporates a modeling function (even, finally, Play's ElectricImage), but most people don't need to worry about how to model objects any more. From small hand-held products to cameras that can be pointed at large buildings, the process of generating realistic 3D models has never been easier, all thanks to lasers. Minolta (Ramsey, NJ) offers a portable system that not only captures the 3D data, but also includes the colour information so that a texture map is automatically built with the model. Polhemus (Colchester, VT) has a hand-held model that allows you to freely move around an object to capture it completely. The camera used in the Cyra Technologies (Oakland, CA) system isn't small or light, but it can capture the data for an entire building just by sitting it across the street.

If you don't want to use a laser system, you can purchase models from a number of companies, including industry-leader Viewpoint Digital (Orem, Utah), who was recently purchased by Computer Associates. Other products, like Microscribe 3D from Immersion Corporation (San Jose, CA), let you effectively "trace" a real-world object to turn it into a 3D model.

After seeing all the ways you could create a 3D model automatically, traditional polygonal and nurbs-based modelers didn't seem nearly as impressive.

The Best Things in Life Are Free
One thing that was impressive was the ability to get powerful 2D and 3D software completely free. On the 2D side, Linker Systems (Irvine, CA) shocked the industry by creating a lower resolution version of their Animation Stand product that is completely free as a download from their web site at The new product, called Animation Stand Personal Edition, is only available for the Macintosh and is limited to an output resolution of 256x192, so it isn't suitable for broadcast animation. However, schools, web developers and professionals who want to try before they buy will find it very useful.

The free 3D software is called Blender and is available from Not a Number, based in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. In the free version, some of the more advanced features, like radiosity, have been removed. However, the company played a very impressive demo reel, which they promised was done with the free version. Even if you want the full version, you're likely going to be able to afford it. A site license, which includes versions for SGI, Sun, Linux, Windows and BeOS, is priced at only $100US.

It's a Small World After All
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the SIGGRAPH show was that a large percentage of the exhibitors were not based in the United States. Companies from the UK, France, Germany and Spain were there, as were companies from Sweden and the Netherlands. At least one company was based in Australia and two others were from Belgium. As expected, there were a lot of Japanese companies, but there was also a company from Singapore, REVIVAL digital, who demonstrated a very impressive system for cleaning up noise and other artifacts present in video archives.

In every booth, at least some of the people spoke English, but not every company had an office in the United States. This is definitely a departure from previous years, where companies worked very hard to open a U.S. office in order to appear "real." Perhaps the growth of the Internet and the development of the "global economy" have eliminated this requirement.

Let's Party!
Since SIGGRAPH was held in Los Angeles this year, it's easy to attribute much of the success to the show's proximity to Hollywood and the film and television industries. It will be interesting to see if next year's show, scheduled for July 23-28, 2000 in New Orleans, matches the energy of the show that just ended. If it turns out that LA is the key to success, we'll only have to wait another year for the energy to return - SIGGRAPH 2001 is scheduled for August 12-17 back in Los Angeles.

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