Fear and Loafers in San Diego
I was somewhere over Northern California headed south when the fear started to take hold. I remember wondering about what lay ahead thinking something to the effect of 'what am I doing here?' As a graphic designer only peripherally interested in animation, 3D rendering, motion capture, or gaming, I was afraid that I might not fit into this crowd and worried about what form my article might take. I knew that I was more interested in the inspiration and imagination promised by this year's event organizers than the ubiquitous technology presentations. However, what I really wanted to know was what motivated thousands of people to travel thousands of miles to attend a weeklong conference about computer graphics. These questions occupied my thoughts when suddenly we arrived. In a rush of security checks, baggage claims and shuttle buses, I was there, in the heart of the beast, the epicenter of the computer graphics universe: SIGGRAPH 2007.
This was my first trip to SIGGRAPH and I wasn't fully prepared for the massive scale, tens of thousands of attendees or overwhelming number of speakers, screenings, classes, presentations, exhibitions and parties that the week would involve. I certainly didn't anticipate the frenetic atmosphere awaiting me in the days ahead. The combination of noise, crowds, air-conditioning and fantasy reminded me of my first trip to Las Vegas, recalling Hunter S. Thompson's famous words "A week in Vegas is like stumbling into a time warp." Indeed, attending SIGGRAPH felt like stumbling into the future, the entire experience leaving me rather overwhelmed by sensory overload, exhausted from partying and in pain from all the walking.
I really should have brought better shoes.
Much like Vegas, I found myself wandering through the endless air-conditioned hallways, cavernous rooms and loud exhibition halls with wide-eyed astonishment. The huge event was an exercise in over-stimulation, complete with a dizzying array of colourful, exciting, loud events and parties. Everywhere I turned, I met dreamers who, like children, love nothing more than creating and engaging in fantasies — be they games, films, art or other artificial realities. The whole experience seemed a bit surreal, like a carnival or a circus.
The SIGGRAPH exhibition floor itself was a myriad of glossy displays, interactive demos and live performances. The enormous space was filled with frantic young people with a desperate look in their eyes — needing their next fix and willing to line up for an hour just to receive a free poster, t-shirt, or mug. The resemblance to tourists lining up for free seafood cocktails at a buffet was striking. As for the dazzling lights and sounds from the various presentations, they were captivating at first, though in time the noise and visual stimuli became overwhelming and mildly irritating.
"Step Right Up Folks!" shouted the man in the top hat and tails, "and experience Guerilla Studios". This computer graphics playground was as close to a circus as anywhere at SIGGRAPH, complete with circus posters designed and produced on site by Adobe Achievement Award winners and finalists such as Vancouver Film School's own Marcos Ceravolo.
Once inside the cavernous space, visitors had free access to a seemingly endless variety of innovative hardware and software, including rare input and output devices such as hand-held 3D scanners, 3D printers, and even lenticular imaging printers. Here, throngs of talented attendees focused more on creativity than technology, as they experimented, collaborated and created together amidst the chaotic environment. It was exhilarating and inspirational.
Some may not appreciate SIGGRAPH as much as others. Though there was nearly something for everybody across the various computer graphics fields, it became obvious that the conference was primarily geared toward those seriously involved in gaming, 3D animation and visual effects, leaving little for traditional graphic, web or motion designers. I was told there had been an entire day dedicated to interactive and online technologies at previous conferences, though I saw no sign of this at SIGGRAPH 2007.
Don't get me wrong, the popular Art Gallery Exhibit housed a number of attempts at creatively merging art with technology, and the Emerging Technology Exhibit was filled with unexpected uses of input, display and interaction technologies. But I can't say I was very impressed for long. Unfortunately, much of the Art Gallery was filled with feeble art and gimmickry with no real substance. And the Emerging Technologies area was rife with irrelevant, broken or malfunctioning hardware. There were, of course, a few amazing exceptions. I just wished there were more.
"What happens at SIGGRAPH, stays at SIGGRAPH," said Steve from Colorado, referring to his plans to blow off some steam and party hard during the conference. And Steve was certainly not alone. It seemed even the conference organizers and presenters helped ensure there were plenty of opportunities to have fun and get into trouble.
There were private press release parties, a sake opening ceremony, French wine tastings, DJs and dancing on the infamous battleship USS Midway, a digital fashion show and the oversold party at House of Blues that had attendees lining up around the block for hours. Of course there were the opening and closing receptions as well, but these were conservative affairs compared to the other events, most of which featured live music, DJs and visuals. A common theme seemed to be the scantily clad go-go dancers.
The long days at SIGGRAPH ended with wisdom during the packed keynote speaker presentations, two of which caught my attention and imagination. Graphic novelist and author Scott McCloud presented an inspirational talk about emerging technologies and their effect on traditional arts such as comics. He had the packed room laughing and engaged. He told the story of how he had previously tried to create a "durable mutation of comics" by embracing digital media. His early attempts at creating online comics failed, but he hasn't given up yet. In the end, McCloud emphasized the importance of art and craft, reminding the audience that no matter how technologies may change, they ultimately stay the same.
Glen Entis, Electronic Arts' Chief Visual Officer, gave a terrific talk called "Thrill Seeking in Interactive Real-time Graphics." In it, he examined the very real possibility that the technologies and processor power now becoming available will radically change the future of rendered realities. With obvious impact on game and film design, Entis explored the "zombie factor" or "uncanny valley" that has cursed these industries where the pursuit of hyper-reality in real-time rendering falls short by failing to engage the viewer emotionally. He also discussed the notion of "Tool as Content" as a new aspect to game design: real-time rendering allowing users to create and customize content, be they avatars, creatures, vehicles or environments (i.e. Sims).
Though much of the conference may not have been geared directly to attendees like me, I still came away with some memorable highlights. For instance, some of the "Papers" were fascinating. I especially enjoyed the demonstrations of cutting edge technologies such as Berkeley's Maneesh Agrawala's live demo of "soft scissors", an intelligent interactive cropping tool capable of extracting alpha mattes of foreground objects in real-time. It was like watching magic on screen. Likewise, Ariel Shamir's presentation and live demo of his intelligent, content-aware "seam carving" and resizing tool, iSeam, left the audience stunned. And the demonstration of the latest image vectorization software using optimized gradient mesh technology, enabling users to create hyper-reality vector images, was astounding. These three applications alone would significantly change how we work with images in my graphic design studio. So many interesting papers, all amazing stuff.
I never did adequately answer my question about what motivates people to attend a SIGGRAPH conference. Perhaps there is no easy answer. People attend for various reasons. Some go to experience and discover new things, and expand their horizons. Others are there to meet people. And many seem to return year-after-year to party with industry friends. One day I met a senior engineer from the Google Earth team, on another I chatted with a scientist from Microsoft's R&D team. Famous concept artists and visual effect wizards wandered the SIGGRAPH halls alongside throngs of unsuspecting young computer graphics. As the days passed, one thing became very clear to me: with nearly 25,000 attendees at this year's event alone, I belong to a very large club indeed.
Though the majority of people I got to know were animators or visual effects artists, I met a surprising variety of computer graphics users. The GUI designer from Korea was there to be inspired and see the next generation technologies. The entrepreneur and inventor from Seattle, was at SIGGRAPH to meet potential partners and shop his ideas. And the 20-year veteran and computer graphics educator from New Jersey was attending in order to keep up with technology and trends. And of course, there were the many young students from around the world, eager to show off their portfolios in the hopes of landing a job. There were even people from disciplines outside of computer graphics in attendance. For example, the Cognitive Science student from Virginia State wasn't even a computer graphics user, but was attending in order to observe this group and do field research for her studies. Similarly, the science crowd was on hand, presenting papers and exploring how humans and culture are affected by hyper-realistic artificial realities and simulated humans (i.e. robots).
The clear advantage of attending SIGGRAPH is to be surrounded by so many like-minded people in similar industries with similar passions. Overhearing old friends reuniting and catching up since they last saw each other was as common as new friendships blossoming amongst the geek talk and various receptions. And then of course, there were those hell bent on using the conference as a chance to blow off steam and live on the edge for a few days. Sound familiar? It would if you've ever been to Las Vegas.
San Diego is a terrific city for a conference. I had been looking forward to enjoying some Southern California sun, authentic Mexican food and fresh seafood. I was not disappointed. If this was an article for my food blog, I'd tell you all about Old Town Mexican Café, The Fish Market, or Indigo in Little Italy, but that's a different article. However, befitting mention, and most impressing me, was the kind hospitality shown to us by the city of San Diego. Everywhere we wandered, there were signs welcoming SIGGRAPH attendees in, and the locals were incredibly polite and accommodating. Thank you San Diego, you hold a good conference!
I felt more than a little hung-over on the flight home. Looking around the small commuter plane (an adventure in itself) it was apparent that the majority of the passengers were SIGGRAPH attendees. I recognized a couple of the exhausted conference goers from the dance floor at the Softimage party the previous night, empathizing with their fatigue and blood-shot eyes. If anyone has been on an outbound flight from Vegas, you know the look I'm describing.
So if you're planning on attending SIGGRAPH 2008 in Los Angeles, just remember that like Vegas, you need to pace yourself. Don't try to see or do it all on the first day. Immerse yourself in the time warp and enjoy the smorgasbord of dazzling sights. And be sure to take a few opportunities to misbehave and meet some like-minded computer users.
But above all, be sure to bring a good pair of walking shoes — trust me you're going to need them.
Mark Busse is co-founder and Design Director at Industrial Brand Creative, President of The Society of Graphic Designers of Canada in BC and active member of ACM SIGGRAPH in Vancouver, BC Canada.
© 2007 Vancouver ACM SIGGRAPH — September 5, 2007