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Siggraph Preview

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Siggraph, which spans the dog days of summer moving from city to city every year, has become the Woodstock of the CG world. Perhaps the coolest thing about the show—which is expected to pull 25,000 people into the LA Convention Center July 31–Aug. 4—is its emerging technologies exhibit, which is typically inhabited by early prototypes built in University research labs. Where else can you see “a novel technique that uses performance of display devices to output dynamic information arbitrarily by performing division and multiplexing in space and time” (a.k.a. display-based computing)? Other technologies on display will allow the recording and reproduction of smells, and the world’s first attempt to present virtual drinking sensations to the mouth and lips through a “straw-like” user interface. “We think of Siggraph as a conveyor belt where conceptually ideas come up as papers, and then we see the early examples of technology and then they become more refined and we then see them on the exhibition floor—they turn into real products,” said Dino Schweitzer, Siggraph’s chief staff executive.The conference will feature 98 papers covering everything from high-performance imaging to animating water drops and fluids to what show organizers are calling a “renaissance of ray-tracing algorithms.” Many of these are destined to become plug-ins to popular visual effects and animation software packages.Expect a packed audience for the main keynote Aug. 1 as Star Wars creator George Lucas presents “A Keynote Q&A with the Father of Digital Cinema.” The talk will be moderated by Bruce Carse, Below the Line’s Screening Series director.In addition, Industrial Light + Magic will present “A Star Wars Retrospective: Environments, Space Battles, and the Characters Who Fought Them from 1977 to 2005,” a special session that will bring together Dennis Muren, John Knoll, Roger Guyett and Rob Coleman to discuss the visual effects from all six installments of the Star Wars saga, comparing the techniques that ILM employed over the years.Another special session will bring together the visual effects supervisors, artists, and technologists behind The Polar Express to discuss how they how they transformed Robert Zemeckis’s film into a 3D stereoscopic IMAX experience.On the show floor, expect to hear a lot of talk about Apple’s recent decision to switch from the IBM PowerPC chipsets to Intel chips. During the company’s last chipset switch in the early 1990s, Apple’s market share fell below five percent and never really recovered, but walk into just about any graphics department and you’d think Mac was the only game in town.Apple faces a bumpy year, with analysts wondering how the company plans to sell G5s between now and 2007, when the switchover is complete, and customers wondering why they should wait for the Mac version of their software to come out, when it’s going be running on an Intel chip anyway. In fact, one of the reasons the company was so popular among graphics artists was that its PowerPC chips outperformed Intel chips on the type of algorithms typically used in graphics applications (or so it was claimed).Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO made the announcement recently at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference. Developers will now have to weather yet another major overhaul and port their software to the new platform—not long after porting to OS X.Jobs admitted that the change will not be fast or easy. “This is not going to be a transition that happens overnight,” he said. “It’s going to happen over a period of a few years.”“Well, in general it could be a good move as the Intel chips appear to be developing faster than the G5 processors and as our software is very processor-intensive,” said Allan Jaenicke, managing director of Imagineer Systems, developers of Mokey motion-tracking and image-stabilizing software, available for both Windows and Mac. “It does give us the headache of yet another platform to have to build and test the software on. After all, it will be a few years before the last G5 Mac is obsolete, so we will have to support Mac/G5 and Mac/Intel until then.”Attendees can expect many of the Mac software developers to announce their plans for the transition. Adobe and Microsoft have already announced their plans to support both the new system and the PowerPC-based systems.Another hot topic is 64-bit computing. Boxx Technologies will be showing dual-processor, 64-bit 3D workstations for visual computing professionals. The systems are customized for animators, graphics artists, compositors, editors or producers, but the basic platform gives dramatically better performance when dealing with the large datasets that come into play in visual effects, color manipulation or even HD editing.Expect to see companies like Autodesk Media and Entertainment (formerly discreet) debuting new, re-architected 64-bit versions of its high-end visual effects and editing systems.Another real computing workhorse will be SGI’s new Prism visualization systems. The system, which starts at under $8,500, features anywhere from two to 256 Intel Itanium 2 processors, and from 2 to 16 ATI graphics processors with up to three terabytes of memory.These systems will power a new Sony SXRD 4K projector (which made its debut at NAB) in the SGI Visualization Theater as well as a full range of high-performance development tools and applications.In terms of software, the Sony 4K projector will be driven by a new resolution-independent daily film review and approval system from Pixel Farm called PFPlay 1.5. The system will be running on the Prism, but is also available for other platforms, including Windows and 64-bit Linux. It features new direct DPX file reading, batch image processing and several optimizations.A long time in coming, eyeon Software will have demos of its Digital Fusion 5 compositing system on the show floor, but the company reports that it will not ship the software until later in the year. But with a loyal base of artists working in Fusion (on such recent projects as Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Frank Miller’s Sin City, The Aviator and The Adventures of Shark Boy & Lava Girl), the company reports a huge number of back orders for the software.U.K.-based Antics will be previewing it Pre-Viz Version 2, a previsualization system that simplifies the whole process of generating and manipulating 3D environments for previsualizations. Its intuitive user interface eliminates the need for a 3D artist just to manipulate the pre-viz, and makes it a far more practical tool for producers, crews and other artists.Another key technology demonstration will be the debut of the Access Grid, a high-performance collaboration technology that supports multi-site community interaction. This emerging, scalable teleconferencing system enables interaction between individual desktops, 3,000-person theaters, and everything in between. In addition, a panel discussion will tackle the more practical and controversial issues of outsourcing graphics and visual effects work offshore (a practice that is becoming increasing common) in a session called “International CG Collaboration: Good, Bad, or Just Impossible?”

Written by Scott Lehane

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