Government Video/TVB Europe/TV Broadcast - September 1997

SIGGRAPH ’97 – Been There, Done That
by Sheldon Liebman

Twenty-four years ago, the very first SIGGRAPH conference was held. Although I wasn't at that first one, I have been to every one since 1982, or two-thirds of the conferences held. Until last month, spending a few very hot summer days at SIGGRAPH was one of the high points of my year. Every year, something new and significant was introduced at SIGGRAPH. Perhaps it was too good to last forever, but this year's SIGGRAPH seemed more like a smaller version of NAB than the premier conference on Computer Graphics.

Obviously, there are differences between the two. For example, there are no booths featuring cameras, lights, or recorders at SIGGRAPH, just as there are no booths at NAB featuring the latest in Virtual Reality products or tools for video game development. But when you add up the square footage on the SIGGRAPH show floor and look at which companies are holding the space, it seems that over 90% of the companies at this show were also at NAB. Five years ago, the percentage was probably 50/50. Ten years ago, the overlap between the two shows was probably less than 10 percent.

Another difference between the shows is the primary goals of the attendees. At NAB, people go to see the latest products in the video field and often bring their checkbooks or purchase orders so they can buy the products that impress them. The seminar program at NAB, while reasonable, is certainly not the key drawing card to the show. At SIGGRAPH, the conferences often come first and the exhibits come second. Buyers don't make the trip to SIGGRAPH - programmers and engineers do. At NAB, the likely question when someone sees your equipment is "How well does it work?" At SIGGRAPH, more often the question is simply "How does it work?"

At one scan converter booth, a show attendee carefully scrutinized the output image on the monitor until the salesman felt he had to go over and say something. When he asked the attendee if she had any questions, her reply was "Not really, unless you want to tell me about your filtering algorithm." This type of question would never be asked at NAB. The end result is more important than the technology.

Which leads to an interesting similarity between SIGGRAPH and NAB - the demos and selling methods seemed to be identical. Everything was Hollywood glitz, sizzle rather than steak, for an audience that really could care less. Even though the show was held in Los Angeles this year, the crowd was definitely not a typical LA gathering. At the Intel booth, the presentation included the "Pentium MMX Dancers" featured in recent Intel advertisements. Other companies gave away T-shirts and other prizes to the attendees who made the most noise during their demos. This seems more appropriate for a consumer show than a technology event.

Give Me Some O2
The one company that did seem to be able to sell on the SIGGRAPH show floor was SGI. One of their booths was centered completely around the new O2 and Octane workstations that were introduced earlier this year. With a reasonable configuration priced at approximately $7500, this is the first SGI product that is positioned to compete directly with PCs and Macs. At SIGGRAPH, SGI offered the same configuration for $4995 if purchased at the show. By the end of the second day, they had sold over 300 units at the show.

Of course, given that this was LA, perhaps the attendees thought that buying an O2 would give them clean air to breathe. More likely, though, is that SGI workstations have always been considered to offer the most advanced technology, but the pricing was out of reach of most people. At $4995, many people may have thought they'd buy one today and worry about what to use it for tomorrow.

Let's Go To The Theater
One thing that hasn't changed (much) is the annual SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater. The amount of special effects footage is certainly growing, but the biggest applause is still reserved for extraordinarily complex graphics tasks. At this year's show, for example, there was a 10-second animation of "smoke" filtering up through the air. Perhaps it was meant to come from a cigarette, but the source wasn't shown - just the smoke. The applause for this realistic simulation was deafening. The only pieces to match it were the "Toy Story Treats," a set of three 60 second clips featuring Buzz Lightyear, Woody and the rest of the gang from the Pixar/Disney hit.

But Wait, There's More...
As I walked through the show, I couldn't help but wonder if I was missing anything exciting. Was there another hall to visit, more booths to see? Actually, there was, but it contained more of the same. SIGGRAPH needed more space than the main floor of the LA Convention Center could provide, so additional exhibits were set up two stories down from the main hall.

By design, this area featured "Start-Up Park," which only housed a dozen companies, mostly with Virtual Reality products. There was also the Electronic Garden, which was this year's answer to the Digital Bayou at SIGGRAPH 96 in New Orleans. I personally think this technology needs to develop quite a bit more to be useful, but there were certainly people who were impressed with it. One exhibit I thought was interesting was a video race game, which featured a camera pointed at your face. Not only did it place your video image in the car you were driving, but you steered by moving your head. Someday, maybe we'll all be doing that.

Another section on this floor was the "Positions Wanted/Positions Available" area. It was interesting to see the hundreds of resumes posted in this area when compared to the dozens of positions being advertised. When you combine this with the recruiting booths staffed by Disney, Digital Domain, Pixar, Dreamworks and others, perhaps the real future of SIGGRAPH is as a very high tech job fair.

Finally, there were a few dozen small booths in this area as well. These were the companies that either signed up really late or didn't have enough priority points to pick a booth on the main floor. Overall, they were very disappointed with their locations and even more disappointed with the turnout they received. Oh well, at least I wasn't the only one disappointed at the show.

And Now the Good News
In addition to the O2 and Octane at the SGI booth, there were a few other items worth noting at the show. Play, which has been demonstrating the "concept" of their Trinity product for over two years, finally announced a real price, approximate ship date and feature set. Amazingly enough, the feature set includes virtually everything they've ever shown in the product and the price is only $4995. There was some confusion over the shipping date, with some employees implying shipment was days away, some saying weeks, and others saying months. Let's just say it will probably ship sometime this year.

Discreet Logic, which has replaced Quantel as the manufacturer of products that every video facility has to have, announced a version of their Flint product that runs on the O2. There isn't anything revolutionary about this product other than the fact that it will cost less than anything Discreet has ever delivered. They also provided a sneak preview of a product they'll be announcing at the upcoming IBC show, but that will have to wait until next month's issue.

Beyond that, there were mostly new versions of old products and new combinations under the same roof. For example, the new MetaCreations booth featured products from the old MetaTools, Fractal Design, Ray Dream and Specular. The Discreet booth included Denim Software and D-Vision products next to Flint, Flame, Fire and Inferno. And Toon Boom was combined with USAnimation for the first time.

As you make your travel plans for next year, you may be wondering if you need to include both Las Vegas (NAB) and Orlando (SIGGRAPH) in your budget. Hopefully, this year is just an aberration and next year's 25th anniversary conference will be a party to remember. If it isn't, the future of SIGGRAPH as an exhibition may be questionable.

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