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Report on ACM SIGGRAPH 96, New Orleans, USA 4 - 9 August 1996

"When the Digital Revolution rolls over you, you're either part of the Steamroller, or part of the Road".

The Digital and Media Revolution

One exhibitor's advertisement had the crunch line "When the Digital Revolution rolls over you, you're either part of the Steamroller, or part of the Road". Another advertisement for software advised the reader "It prowls the murky caves of your imagination, finds the fierce native creativity residing there, releases it and speed swims it to the surface - Stand Back". Along with "Mega Monitors", "Gflops for the Masses", "Use what Hollywood Uses", "The Power behind the Universe", "Go One Step Beyond", "See as Fast as you Think", and "Power Hungry 3D Graphics", this captured the spirit and excitement of ACM SIGGRAPH 96!

30,000 people gathered in the heat and humidity of the deep South of the USA to see and discuss the latest developments in computer graphics. Streets and hotels were swamped (appropriately!) with people and all hotel rooms in the city were booked solid. The SIGGRAPH phenomenon had come to town.

The Conference brochure promised the following: "Here in New Orleans you will witness the Internet leap to its next level of graphics and interactivity. Personal computers will unleash creativity at the farthest reaches of imagination and affordability. History will unfold to yield precious clues and set challenges for our next generation of dreamers".

Overview of the Conference

The Conference offered 39 pre-Conference Courses followed by refereed Papers and Panels Sessions. A large Exhibition offered demonstrations of all the latest and greatest in computer graphics, virtual reality, digital video, special effects generation, 3D motion capture, Internet tools, etc. Side shows offered: "The Bridge: SIGGRAPH96 Art Show", a Computer Animation Festival, Digital Bayou, and the Electronic Theatre. Further activities included Special Interest Groups, Birds of a Feather Sessions, Applications Sessions, Animator and Artists/Designer Sketches, Technical Sketches, and an Educators' Program (with two parallel parts, one called University Track, and the other called K-12 Track). K-12 was more concerned with youth programmes. The University Track had sessions on "Teaching Computer Graphics", "Distance Learning in the Arts", "Multimedia Applications in Science and Architecture", and "Does Technology Facilitate Art?". This material did not appear to have been written up for general availability.
Figure 1: 3D Motion Tracking

The Bridge

The Bridge employed interactive technologies between the Conference Center and the Contemporary Arts Center. The Bridge provided a link on important issues between artists, scientists, technologists, educators, and regional and international communities. It is documented in the Visual Proceedings and the Visual Proceedings CD-ROM.

The Computer Animation Festival presented some of the year's best computer-generated animations in video and film. This year's Festival featured explanatory and documentary works as well as those specifically designed to entertain.

The Digital Bayou

The Digital Bayou presented some demonstrations of advanced interactive graphics technologies in a setting intended to be reminiscent of the Lousiana Bayou with its swamplands and complex ecosystems. Digital cyberspace was likened to such a system - with the potential for fresh ideas and explosive growth of new commercial research and new forms of entertainment. Many of these exhibits supported virtual environments on local computers or via networks.

The Electronic Theatre

The Electronic Theatre offered the latest and greatest in computer generated animation at the historic Saenger Theatre in downtown New Orleans. Highlights included "Computer Aided Cornea Modelling and Visualization" (Barsky, University of California at Berkeley), "James and the Giant Peach" (Sony Pictures Imageworks), "Waterworld 3D Tracking" (Cinesite), "Jumanji" (Industrial Light & Magic), "Terminator 2 - 3D" (Digital Domain), "SIGGRAPH96 Papers Video Proceedings Excerpts" (Jim Blinn, Microsoft Research), "Fibonacci and the Golden Mean" (Palladian Group), "The Making of Babe" (TOPIX Computer Graphics & Animation Inc), "Dragonheart" (Industrial Light & Magic), and "Twister" (Industrial Light & Magic). The latter is now a subsidiary of Lucas Digital (formerly Lucas Film).

Snippets from the Courses

Course selection is difficult due to the many attractions on offer. Principal courses attended included "The Making of Toy Story", "Digital Compositing", "Life-like, Believable Communication Agents", "VRML", and "Designing Real-Time 3D Graphics for Entertainment".

"Smart Rooms"

The courses were well presented with interactive demonstrations by computers. Of particular interest was a lecture by Prof Alex Pentland (MIT Media Lab) on "Smart Rooms", which are environments which 'know' what is going on within them and which can relate to the human to provide support and assistance. It involves real-time person tracking in 3D, an audio system for localising and rendering sounds in a 3D environment, change detection, and the ability to follow multiple sound sources without microphones, wires or sensors. The objective is to get computers to give support in 'normal' environments. The ALIVE system at MIT interacts with agents via a camera and video screen.

In 5 years time, Prof Pentland predicted that we would have a 'natural' body computer in the form of a head-up display (glasses as a display screen), the CPU in a shirt fold, and the batteries in our shoes. The objective is to take the computer out of the box and give it eyes, ears and a bit of common sense. As such it would be alive and reactive - and more like a friend! For further information see Scientific American, April 1996, and
Figure 2: Crowds everywhere

Digital Compositing

The Course on "Digital Compositing" was a 'hot' area, as everyone queued up to hear the digital experts from Hollywood! At shooting costs of up to $100,000 per day we were told it was "cheaper to fix it digitally afterwards, than rerun the shoot". Examples were given of how this is done in current feature film productions. No doubt the 'fixers' get good salaries too, so it is a 'win-win' situation.


Another well-attended course was that on VRML. The specification of VRML 2.0 had only been finalised on 4 August, so intrepid standards people turned up in force to see how VRML would fare in the cut throat world of commercialism, and also what was in it. VRML seems set to succeed, with facilities for "moving worlds on the Web" (i.e. animation), and its endorsement by most 3D graphics vendors and most Web browsers. Information is available at

Designing Real-Time 3D Graphics for Entertainment

Scott Watson of Disney Imagineering explained new scenarios for story telling that did not follow the traditional linear medium. Interactive fiction could be done with theatre models for interactive storytelling, where the Director cues the actors and gives them their motivations, and provides multiple, hierarchical threads of control and a way for them to communicate. High levels of abstraction are needed to be able to orchestrate the whole production.

The Conference

The Conference was Keynoted by Douglas Adams author of "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy". He began with a comment on the "Two Cultures" and how the educational system tended to separate out artists and technologists at birth. Some scientists also were musicians but very few were artists. Generally they had to give up art in school, or the school had given it up on the grounds of cost. However, it is clear that the computer medium needs artists to become fully involved with it in order for it to be effective.

Computers are used to model processes in the world. What is really needed is to model in such a way that we get more information out than is put in. The computer represented a set of technologies that not only extend our technical reach, but could also model and conceptualise, i.e. extend our creative objectives.

This summary concentrates mainly on the Panel Sessions, since full details on all the papers appears in the printed proceedings. Of particular interest among the papers were "The Lumigraph", a new method for capturing the complete appearance of both synthetic and real world objects and scenes without relying on geometric representations. "Disney's Aladdin: First Steps towards Storytelling in Virtual Reality" described a system installed at the EPCOT Center by Disney Imagineering which used VR to fly guests on a magic carpet, and used VR as the medium to tell the stories. "Improv: A System for Scripting Interactive Actors in Virtual Worlds" provided tools to create actors that respond to users and each other in real-time, with personalities and moods consistent with the author's goals and intentions. Further information is contained at URL: "The Virtual Cinematographer: A Paradigm for Automatic Real-Time Camera Control and Directing" presented an approach for generating complete camera specifications for capturing events in virtual 3D environments in real time. For readers wishing to test out their maths, they are invited to look at "Blue Screen Matting" by Alvy Ray Smith and Jim Blinn! "Talisman: Commodity Real-Time 3D Graphics for the PC" describes a new 3D graphics and multimedia hardware architecture which allows high quality animation (traditionally done on high cost 3D workstations) to be done on a PC with a Talisman card at $200 - 300.

Panels covered a variety of topics and were an opportunity for leaders in their fields to discuss controversial issues, emerging technologies, conflicting standards (e.g. HDTV), and hot topics. Two Panels were full houses with attendances of around 2,000 at each. These were (as expected!) "Graphics PCs will put Workstation Graphics in the Smithsonian" and "Springing into the Fifth Decade of Computer Graphics: Where we've been and Where we're going!" The remainder of the Panels had variable attendances.

Graphics PCs vs Workstation Graphics

This section summarises the two most popular Panels. "Graphics PCs will put Workstation Graphics in the Smithsonian" began with Michael Cox (S3 Inc) summarising the reasons why he thought PC graphics would take over the complete range of applications: business model, technical requirements, and volume. The PC business model requires innovation resulting in better and faster products. Technical requirements are richer (for example, media support) and will drive solutions forward. PC volume (100 million PCs will ship in 1998) means more start-ups, more projects, more people, more innovation, greater investment in technology, and better technology. Volume means cheaper fabrication (for over 500K units), the first access to newest fabrication, the R & D can be amortised, and cheap memory.
Figure 3: The Platform for Graphics

Michael Deering (Sun Microsystems) explained that CAD needs detail and accuracy to ensure the designs were reliable. PCs cannot yet give this accuracy and detail. Other similar application areas that need workstations are medical and geophysical. Jay Torborg (Microsoft) maintained that PCs provided the right capabilities at the right price. Economies of scale, breadth of applications, and innovation will ensure that costs will fall and performance will increase. $150 Million in venture capital has been invested in 3D chip components. 1.3 Million copies of AutoCAD are installed on PCs. Internet applications, business, and visualization will all be able to use this technology. The advantage is now with the PC - adequate performance at the best price will ultimately prevail.

Kurt Akeley (Silicon Graphics Inc) maintained that although PC graphics would expand and take over most of the applications, there would be an increased need for high-end applications on workstations in the areas of VR, geophysical volume rendering, and closed loop finite element analysis. Thus there is a need for the best performance - sooner rather than later. This is driving the workstation forward.

The audience pitched in very vociferously with gripes about PC operating systems (directed at Microsoft), high cost of upgrades (directed at Silicon Graphics) - "When will the price of a compiler upgrade come down to the price of a PC?", "What about better and cheaper?" (to Sun and Silicon Graphics). The motion was not put to the vote, but it was clear that the house was divided between the loyal supporters of high powered boxes that needed Unix and the less privileged that had to suffer DOS but were beginning to see potential for great improvements for minimal expenditure!

The Past and the Future

"Springing into the Fifth Decade of Computer Graphics: Where we've been and Where we're going!" was chaired by Carl Machover. Who began by summarising the key developments that had gone into making the area an $80 billion industry (by the year 2000). He emphasised that it was the creative part that determined quality, not the technology. Dr Fred Brooks (University of North Carolina) explained his goal in 'making things work'. and proposed plenoptic rendering as a faster method for making virtual environments work more effectively.

Dr Ed Catmull (President of Pixar) said that the original Utah target of realism via computer graphics had come in for some criticism recently, but it had moved the field forward. When he was at NYIT the University thought the animation developments were going to replace the role of the artist. Many computer graphics specialists want to be artists and look to the computer to help. However, art is not so much about the ability to draw (with or without computer) but the ability to see. No amount of computing or rendering can bridge the gap. Animators are trained to observe and artists are trained to see. Often computer graphics specialists made better musicians than artists simply because they had been taught music in kindergarten but had never received any art tuition. In order to make better use of computers, we all had to "learn to see".

Chas Chasen outlined some of the industry applications of computer graphics, and Bob Dunn explained how the centre of the value chain in computer graphics (modelling, representation etc) was being taken over by greater capacity and power on the one hand, and Internet tools and the WWW on the other. New opportunities were opening up for browsing terabyte data sets over the WWW and the investigation of market opportunities for the future by analysing the data on the WWW. Dr Bert Herzog traced the development of CAD and visualization and noted that although these seemed to have required a 20 year time span to reach maturity, the recent developments in WWW and Java only required a 2 year time scale.

Dr Andy van Dam gave his views on the computer interfaces of the future. The WIMP interface was not cast in stone and, in Bill Buxton's words, we should try to get the interface out of our face! What we need is ubiquitous, wearable, multi-channel computers that could operate in full duplex mode - talking, recognising faces and gestures, and to disambiguate all these channels. Multimedia forms of communication should allow teams of people to interact with a computing environment.

The developments in WWW and HTML were astonishing. Time compression is upon us and the pace of change will accelerate.

The Exhibition

Microsoft called themselves "The Platform for Graphics" and had a very strong presence in the papers and panels sessions as well as the Exhibition. Many companies were demonstrating low cost 3D graphics boards for the PC. Digital video and digital media products were everywhere. 3D motion capture for animation via body suits and trackers was another hot area. Many companies were advertising the latest and the greatest for special effects for film and video. Hollywood and the desk top are coming together. "Who has the real power in Hollywood? It could be You" was the message of one exhibitor. "Hollywood Graphics and Broadcast Video on a PC" was the message of another. More pragmatic was "Work Hard, Render Fast, Retire Young!"
Figure 4: Shockwave rocks the Web

The main themes of SIGGRAPH were outlined at the beginning:

This implies "Commodity 3D". A $200 PC board could do 750,000 polygons per second. Internet browsing and WWW authoring tools were also much in evidence, indicating the growth of Internet usage for text, graphics, and animation. Java is likely to become the language for networked computing and graphics. DEC were displaying a new 3D graphics workstation centred on Windows NT and Open GL. HP had coined a new word for their products - "Excelleration"! Apple's latest pitch was "Master of the Media".

The French Quarter

In the centre of down-town New Orleans is the French Quarter, an interesting collection of restaurants, art galleries, and boutiques. Certainly the restaurants were very good, and filled with 'after-hours' discussion of the future of computer graphics!


Most presentations used slides, videos and interactive computers. However, although the first two worked 99% of the time, the latter still causes problems! Presenters were heard to say on numerous occasions: "I don't believe it, it was working 5 minutes ago!". Here are some examples of the messages we saw amplified on the big screen as presenters tried valiantly to overcome their problems: "Windows is unable to determine your hardware profile - Is it unlocked?", "Unable to open file", "Wrong configuration". One speaker with a more humorous approach had a PC which displayed the following - "There is not enough RAM in the known Universe to complete the task you have requested".

SIGGRAPH once again came up trumps with the latest and the greatest! Much to think about as we chart the course towards next year and the next millennium. The most favourite word in the heat and humidity of New Orleans was 'cool'. There must be a connection! We started with 'pretty cool' and 'really cool' in the Courses. Presence (in the virtual reality sense) was 'cool' on the Panels. Computers were 'cool' in "Building Compelling VRML Worlds". 3D graphics everywhere in the world (via VRML and the new 3D graphics PCs, of course) was 'way cool'. State-of-the-art research reported in the papers was 'very cool'. A new result was 'another cool thing'. And finally, one thing was described as 'awesome cool' - yes, you've guessed it - SIGGRAPH 96. Figure 5: More body tracking!

We look forward to next year's event in Los Angeles, 3 - 8 August 1997.

Information on SIGGRAPH Special Projects is available at URL

and on SIGGRAPH Public Policy at URL

Rae Earnshaw
University of Bradford