The very mention of the name Monte-Carlo conjures up images of Mediterranean
sunshine, Cotes de Provence wine, fruits-de-mer and nights at the casino.
And anyone who has been to this part of the world will know that all of
these images are true. However, this year the weather was not so clement,
and the cold spell that engulfed Europe during the latter part of February,
managed to extend its grip as far as the principality of Monaco. Nevertheless,
the cold weather was the very best quality, and the chill I caught was entirely
Apart from this year's unusual weather, Monaco is still the perfect venue
for any conference, and has hosted the Imagina Conference for fifteen years.
The Conference organisers are the Festival de Television de Monte-Carlo
and the Institut National de l'Audiovisuel (INA). The Conference is always
well attended, with many conference session audiences exceeding one thousand
delegates. This year was no exception, and with a conference theme of 'Cyber-Earth'
one can see why delegates travelled from every part of Europe to discover
the latest advances in cyber-reality. Philippe Quiau, the Imagina Programme
Chairman, designed this year's 3day Conference around the themes: Intelligent
Interaction; 3D Animation; Cyber-Existence; 3D Navigation; the Internet;
and Special Spectacle.
Thomas Ray, from the ATR Human Information Processing Research Laboratories,
Japan, outlined his project to 'create a very large, complex and interconnected
region of cyberspace that will be inoculated with digital organisms which
will be allowed to evolve freely through natural selection'. The project
is to be funded through the donation of spare CPU cycles from thousands
of computers connected to the Internet. Amazingly, there is no sinister
reason for creating these 'digital organisms', nevertheless, I don't relish
the idea of any of them growing inside my PC! I have enough troubles with
DOS as it is! Other interesting papers included Las Meninas by Michael
Tolson from Xaos, USA, and Internet and Graphical Multi-player Games by
Brian Moriarty from Mpath Interactive, USA. Tolson developed Turing's idea
of 'morphogens' which are abstract chemical reactants that diffuse through
a medium to create naturally occurring patterns. Tolson's plan is to implement
them in software to explore a 'geometry of thought'. Moriarty's plans were
much more down-to-earth: he wants to design games that can support hundreds
or thousands of users.
This session is always a favourite of mine, and this year's topics were
excellent. John Lasseter from Pixar chaired the session and gave an opening
talk on his work in the making of Toy Story, the first completely computer-generated
movie. He and Bill Reeves took us behind the scenes to see why it took
four years to animate the film. Perhaps the most revealing part of the
presentation concerned the everyday software problems that face any computer
animation facility: they showed animation sequences where the legs of models
travelled in the opposite direction to their bodies, and where eyes were
rendered grotesquely out of all proportion. The film clips they showed were
brilliant, and I am now looking forward to seeing the entire film. Daniel
Jeannette gave a presentation on the making of Casper, Steve Glenn from
Walt Disney Imagineering spoke about Hollywood embracing virtual reality,
and Michael Jaffrennou described the making of an animation Pierre et le
loup (Peter and the wolf), which failed to impress me.
This session was dedicated to seven presentations on topics such as Networked
Teleexistence, Telesurgery, Endosurgery, Wearable Computers and Virtual
Reality (VR) for Planetary Exploration. Probably, these subjects will not
be realised this century, but are bound to arrive in the next millennium.
For me, the most professional presentation came from Richard Satava, who
spoke on Telesurgery, VR and the New World of Telemedicine. Although I
had seen his slides and videos before, he speaks with such conviction it
is so very believable.
This session was about the tools required to navigate the WWW in 3D. Fabiom
Pettinati, from Apple Computer, Inc. showed how this could be achieved using
QuickDraw (TM) 3D and QuickTime (TM) VR. Another system called FAST (Flow
Analysis Software Toolkit) was described by Val Watson from NASA and Jean
Clucas from Sterling Software. FAST overcomes the problems of low resolution
and low frame rates when communicating dynamic visualizations during live
video conferencing, by only sending the scientific data and viewing scripts,
and letting the viewer's workstation render the image locally.
Chris Laurel, from Dimension X, spoke about Iced Java and Liquid Reality.
Ice is an API developed by Laurel for Sun Microsystem's Java language, and
Liquid Reality is a VRML toolkit written in Java which utilises Ice for
rendering. I must admit that I do like the names being chosen by programmers
today; perhaps there is a chance of extending the life of certain languages
by renaming them, such as Hot FORTRAN, or Lumpy COBOL++!
There were other presentations by Tamara Munzner, from the University of
Stanford, who described three products: GEOVIEW, WEBVIZ and WEBOOGL, which
speak for themselves; and Jim Kent, from SGI, talked about VRML and WEBSPACE
3D as navigation tools for the WWW.
The actual title for this session was From Virtual Banks to Cyber Casinos
which was very apt for a conference based in Monte-Carlo! I have already
become used to the idea of not having any money - only numbers on a piece
of paper sent to me in red each month by my bank manager! What virtual
banks seem to promise is the ability for them to take away any money I have
faster, and send any money destined for my account twice around the world
picking up interest before it finds its way into my account! Nevertheless,
David Chaum, from DigiCash, convinced us that we do need an electronic mechanism
for handling cash transactions over the Internet. He described a product
called ecash, which had been awarded the ITEA grand prize by the European
Commission for best IT product for 1995. Ecash runs on DOS, MS Windows,
Macintosh, and most UNIX platforms, and the client can both send and receive
Warren Eugene from Internet Casinos, spoke about 'Cyber-Casino', where one
can play blackjack, roulette, keno, craps, poker and slot machines, without
having to get out of bed! He said that some of the questions he is often
asked are: 'Can we trust Internet Casinos?', and 'Has organised crime approached
you yet?'. One question that I wanted to ask was 'If my DigiCash payment
was lost in cyberspace, would I have a horse's head left in my bed?'. I
didn't ask it! Other presentations included The Virtual Bank by
Lee Stein, The Strategy of MasterCard International by Ed Hogan,
and Financial Transactions and Infohighways by Pete Hill.
There are many conferences where delegates are making their way home during
the last day. Not so at Imagina, for the last day is always set aside for
a session on film special effects. This year we had some excellent presentations
on the films Babe, Species, Apollo 13 and Judge Dredd. Did
you know that over a dozen pigs were used to make the film Babe?
And probably, by the time the last one was putting on his make up, the
first one was on sale in Tescos! However, it was very interesting to discover
how all the animals were transformed into talking beasts with the aid of
Robert Legato, from Digital Domain, spoke about the making of Apollo
13, which seems to have used scale models throughout. When a delegate
asked a question about the role of computer animation in the film, we were
rather disappointed to learn that it had only been used to create ice and
smoke during launch sequences.
Jerzy Kular, from Ex Machina, France, spoke about Krakken, a short computer
animation currently under development. This included some excellent animation
of imaginary underwater creatures. Another piece from Ex Machina was Period.
This was animated by Philippe Billion, and for me, was one of the highlights
of the show. Billion described how he had created a storm at sea using
a triangular mesh surface, solid textures and some excellent mists. Although
the sea was exciting on its own, an unmanned airship slowly descended into
the sea and sank without trace. Good stuff!
There we are - another Imagina over, and I am back in England recovering
from my cold, and saving up for Imagina '97.