eTech & Art
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  Reports from SIGGRAPH 2001

Interview with Marc Downie

by Wendy Ju
July 23, 2002

What first drew you to computer graphics?

I started coding when I was very small. I got this computer and it wouldn't load any games. It had this tape drive that was so flaky that it wouldn't actually load anything. So now you're left with this box that your parents have spent a lot of money on, and you were really excited about getting... short of taking it apart, which my parents wouldn't let me do, you've gotta start writing code. I would at least type stuff in. It had no sound output, so it was about computer graphics-- what else can you do?

I remember, in high school, discovering that my local university's library had no security, and you could just walk in and no body stopped me. I remember coming across a big stack of SIGGRAPH proceedings, I was like 14 or 15-- just this big long line of SIGGRAPH proceedings. I remember going, "Oh my god everybody's doing this. There's a whole field. There's a lot of energy in this." Just reading through-- not paying too much attention to the math-- I recall suddenly realizing that it was this vast field. It was hard and you could take it a lot further, and there was just more, and more and more and more. So SIGGRAPH's held a special place in my heart for a long time. I just published a paper there and that's real, and it feels pretty good. Somebody can go the end of that stack of proceedings at the Aberdeen University library and look in the back and there I'll be.

Do you have any favorite CG mentors?

I remember in the papers I read, I remember reading Karl Sims' work. He dealt with these massive genetic algoritms that were expressed in the shapes of these creatures and how they'd move their bodies. He'd set them up in competition with one another, trying to get a block in the middle of the wall. Over millions of iterations they'd develop different strategies for geting to the block: there'd be these long thin ones that would crawl all around it, there'd be these big fat ones that jump to the other side of it. I remember seeing the movement on video, and then I read it on paper, and the quality movement was just fantastic. The sense of attention these things had was just wonderful.

What was the first time you contributed to SIGGRAPH?

The first time I contributed to SIGGRAPH I was part of a big team [from MIT Media Lab's Synthetic Characters group.] We had this piece called (void*) three years ago, and that was the first time I was at SIGGRAPH. In the end, it worked just fine, but it was classic SIGGRAPH E-Tech anxiety. It started working at about 3am, Monday morning-- after the press preview. It looked fine, but we knew it was a long way to go before it was fun. We were in LA, at the convention center and I remember some people sleeping on the floor at the exhibit hall, some people are working on stuff, and at 3am it becomes this demo that we actually want to show.

What year/city was your first SIGGRAPH? Which was most intense? Why?

That year [that we displayed (void*)] was the most intense probably because the exhibit wasn't working so well. Last year I had two pieces here. One was the big team project AlphaWolf-- I was the art and technical director in that. That was intense only in contrast to AlphaWolf because that really just worked very well. It was a group of people that was just fantastic to work with. I don't know if we planned better or were more fortunate or--I don't know what we did-- but it was a very soft landing. I remember leaving the conference center on Sunday night at a sensible time. We had a productive day and gotten lots of work done and it all function. Last year was the first year I had something in the art show as well. It was something called Music Creatures. It was a piece that made sound and reacted to sound: three little autonomous creatures that had strange looking bodies.

What contributions to SIGGRAPH are you most proud of?

AlphaWolf is the one which has gotten the most press... by far. Every time I meet someone who was at SIGGRAPH last year they remember alphaWolf. I think I was most proud of successfully directing that one... although maybe it's success had nothing to do with the art direction. It was fun to see that just get there.

I guess I'm really happy with my prints [which are exhibited in this years Art Gallery].

What's your favorite thing at this year or last year's SIGGRAPH?

I think it's the drawing machine. It's very good, beautiful. I think I've seen many things like it, but it's very beautiful to be able to get up to that level. I keep going past it, every morning and every evening to make sure my other piece doesn't crash, and I get to see it changing over time. I like the theme in the art show this year about process, featuring the artistic process next to so-called finished artwork. I think it's a very good thing for SIGGRAPH to do.

What near/intermediate developments in CG do you look forward to?

The thing that's going to have the most impact on my work is going to be graphics cards that are a lot more like the old SGI hardware, which will be more open-ended and flexible. Way back in the day, in the day of void*, you had these huge SGI, you couldn't move around. They had exteremely flexible graphics, you could do all sort of things with them. And then, we stopped using them because they broke all the time and they were expensive. And there were fast graphics cards for PCs you could buy, but you could just do one thing with them you could put triangles on the screen, as many as possible. And they all sort of look the same, they all have that "real-time graphics" feel to them. All my work in the recent years, I've been working on this non-photorealistic stuff and it's very hard to persuade graphics cards to do that. It's getting easier. Soon I think we'll be back in the position of having flexible platforms.

Can you recap the 7 things you have at SIGGRAPH this year?

Okay, but there are some things that I'm just on the list for, there are some projects that are purely mine and there are some projects with my name on it because there's a chunk of code that I wrote in there.

There's the prints-- Experiments on Intelligent Form -- those are purely mine. There's the interactive window which I did with Joe Paradiso's group for ETech, I provided the graphic content for that. I worked with Paul Kaiser on Shelley Eshkar on the Loops project, which is over in the Art Gallery. I have my name on the Public Anenome robot because I wrote the code for the behavior and motor system. Let's see, where am I... oh, we have the paper on alphaWolf, and a sketch we're doing Friday about the Loops piece. Last but not least, I believe there six seconds of our dog [from alphaWolf] in the Electonic Theatre-- I haven't seen it yet. It'll be fun to see that on the big screen.

What do you think the role of interative techniques are at SIGGRAPH?

There's a great quote by Jim Blinn that a technique is any trick you can use more than once. So are there any interactive tricks we can use more than once? Well yeah, there are too many of them... and at the same time, maybe not enough of them. It's getting increasing easier for artists to get a hold of all the tools you can buy, and they just use them. I'm not entirely sure that the artists are succeeding in closing the loops on that. Are they are powering research forward or suggesting new avenues? What is the relationship they have with technology, are they just taking it or are they changing the way we think about it? I'm not sure that that's happening.

One of the big things that my group does is figuring how do you strucutre an interaction, what is the infrastructure you need to build an interaction. Everyone knows learning is cool--everyone's excited about machine learning. How do you turn that into something people can interact with, that they'll enjoy, rather than just Matlab code that you leave on over night.

Of these many venues you're presenting in, do you have a favorite?

I always prefer ETech. I'm always a little annoyed with the Art Gallery, because it's not really an Art Gallery, it's just a wall of stuff. The curator doesn't usually know what the works are going to be. There's no sound damping, so on and so forth. Whereas in ETech the kind of stuff doesn't matter so much. I'd like to see the day when the division between the Art Gallery and ETech was dropped. It's becoming increasingly hard to maintain that.

I would really like to do the Art Gallery. If I were ever to organize the Art Gallery,there would be no Photoshop. The subtitle would be--you know there's always these names, like the "Digital Bayou" or "Millenium Hotel"-- so it would be "Art Gallery: Code your own" or "Roll your own" or something. Focus on artists and their relationship with their tools. That's just what I want shown...there's no great disrespect for Photoshop or anything.

I guess my favorite venue is papers, actually. You get a copy of the proceedings and you're there and people read it. People really do read the siggraph proceedings. People pay attention to that. It's great to know that you're going to be on lots of people's shelves.

Will you be contributing at this rate in the future?

I won't get my PhD ever if I keep doing this, so maybe I'll try to take a year off next year. What I would like to do is be more disciplined in my sketches. I'll fire off a volley of them to SIGGRAPH and some won't get in, but it's a nice process of writing your ideas down so they don't get lost. It's sort of nice to take your ideas as far as they want to go.

Marc Downie is a PhD student in the Synthetic Characters group at the MIT Media Lab He has a number of contributions to SIGGRAPH this year-- seven, to be exact.




This page is maintained by
Jan Hardenbergh
All photos you see in the 2002 reports are due to a generous loan of Cybershot digital cameras from SONY