GV – August 1998
TVBEurope – September 1998

SIGGRAPH at 25: An Entertaining Upgrade
By Sheldon Liebman

Last month marked the 25th anniversary of SIGGRAPH trade show. SIGGRAPH, which is the Association of Computing Machinery’s (S)pecial (I)nterest (G)roup for (GRAPH)ics, celebrates the best in computer graphics technology. This year’s conference and exhibition was held in Orlando, Florida, where recent fires had subsided and were replaced by the more traditional heat and humidity. In spite of the weather, this trade show had the energy and excitement that has been a trademark of SIGGRAPH for most of its history.

Been There, Remember That
I’ve been going to SIGGRAPH since 1982’s show in Boston, when I was fresh out of college and working as a programmer for a small computer graphics company that developed a turnkey system for creating business graphics. This year’s show transported me back to that time with a series of exhibits celebrating the history of the computer graphics industry.

Separate booths were created remembering the hardware and software of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Included in these exhibits were two pieces of equipment from Lyon Lamb Video Animation Systems, the developer of the original frame by frame animation controller. I sold Lyon Lamb’s VAS IV Animation Controller and ENC VI Video Encoder during most of the 1980s, but hadn’t seen the equipment for a number of years. Looking at those (pre)historic devices, it was easy to see just how far this industry has come, especially in the area of merging computers and video.

Most people don’t use animation controllers anymore. Instead, they went to the booths of companies like Accom and DPS, where real-time digital disk recorder technology has replaced the slower, more cumbersome, tape-based frame recording process.

You Say You Want a Revolution
A lot of other areas have undergone similar revolutions. Odyssey Productions, based in San Diego, markets a line of videos that serve as a chronicle of computer graphics animation technology. Currently, they offer a couple dozen choices that go back as far as the early seventies and continue through today. Watching this history of animation, you can’t help but notice how far the tools we use have progressed.

Animating any type of character movement could take days using the systems of the 80s, when motion capture systems were more of an idea than a reality. Today, companies like Ascension Technology, Kaydara and Polhemus make it extremely easy to animate characters realistically by capturing the motion of live actors and formatting that data for use in 3D systems. Today, captured motion can even be edited using a new tool from BioMechanics of Marrieta, Georgia. The company’s new Nuance Motion Editor gives everyone a tool to stretch, squash and correct captured data to ensure that the motion you want is the motion you get.

Modeling is another area that has experienced a quantum leap. Instead of painstakingly digitizing models by hand, today’s tools use lasers and stereo technology to easily create accurate representations of virtually any 3D shape. Companies like Immersion Corporation and In-Harmony Technology showcased this type of technology.

Other areas of animation are also evolving at an amazing rate. For those readers who go back to the 80s like me, one of the companies that pioneered high quality animation software was Symbolics and the Symbolics Graphics Division. Headed by Tom McMahon, who now helps merge computers and video at Microsoft, Symbolics Graphics is probably best known for producing a brilliant animated short called "Stanley and Stella in Breaking the Ice."

The company’s core business was artificial intelligence and the Graphics Division used these tools to build very sophisticated 2D and 3D graphics and animation products. Although they were highly regarded, they were very expensive and never achieved commercial success. In the early 90s, the company went bankrupt and through a series of intermediate steps, the technology ended up at Nichimen Graphics. At SIGGRAPH, Nichimen demonstrated Nendo, their latest program for 2D and 3D graphics and animation. Nendo, which is a direct descendant of the earlier Symbolics products, is priced at only $99.

You Get More Than You Pay For
Nendo is just one example of an amazing downward trend in pricing that is accompanied by a sharp upward movement in capability. Mergers and acquisitions bring together multiple companies with overlapping products. Even though the number of products may decrease, the prices continue to fall. This mirrors the drop in hardware pricing that was also evident at SIGGRAPH.

A few years ago, SGI was one of only a handful of major platform vendors at the show. This year, Compaq, Dell and Sun MicroSystems had large booths and other vendors like Intergraph and Tri-Star were also well represented. Graphics card vendors were also out in force. Accelgraphics, recently purchased by Evans and Sutherland, had a major display, as did Appian Graphics, Diamond Multimedia, ELSA, Real3D and STB. Pricing on high end, accelerated graphics cards from these companies starts at under $100.

Plug It In, Plug It In
Fast, inexpensive hardware coupled with powerful, affordable software makes it easy to create systems today that go far beyond what most of us were only dreaming about in the 1970s and 1980s. What may be more amazing, however, is how many ways there are to expand and enhance these systems through the use of a relatively new technology, the "plug-in." Just a few years ago, plug-in technology was pretty much available in Adobe PhotoShop and a few other products. This year, many exciting products were showcased that either accept plug-ins or are plug-ins themselves.

Expanding on the success of PhotoShop, Adobe now offers Premiere for non-linear editing and After Effects for compositing and special effects. Both of these products support plug-ins. Other NLE solutions from Avid, Discreet Logic, Media 100 and others also support this technology. 3D animation packages like SoftImage and Kinetix 3D Studio Max also accept plug-ins.

On the other side, products like AutoMedia’s AutoMasker and Artel Software’s Boris FX add advanced and specialized functions to products like those mentioned above. As a plug-in, these enhancements are introduced from within a product that is already running and utilize a user interface that is already familiar. In addition, multiple plug-ins can be used at the same time to add extremely complex and unique effects to animation and video projects.

Even Quantel is getting into the plug-in act. At NAB, the UK’s 5D Ltd. introduced 5D.Monsters, the world’s first plug-ins for Quantel’s Hal system. At SIGGRAPH, 5D introduced the 5D.Monster Masher, a high-performance, offline effects renderer for all Java-supported platforms from Quantel.

In perhaps the ultimate application of plug-in technology, the people at Artel explained that the next generation version of Boris FX will actually be able to recognize and use plug-ins that are created for Adobe After Effects. Since their product, itself a plug-in, can be used with over a dozen different products from as many manufacturers, this can provide a great deal of new opportunities for both Artel and the other companies that market After Effects plug-ins. Plug-ins for plug-ins – what will they think of next.

Hooray for Hollywood
Over it’s 25-year history, the focus of SIGGRAPH has undergone a number of shifts. Business graphics ruled at one point, CAD was the major focus at another, but lately, this show has gone Hollywood in a big way. Every major studio had a booth this year showcasing their latest animation and accepting resumes in an attempt to find the next John Lassiter or Don Bluth.

At the Sony Pictures Imageworks booth, attendees were instructed on how to draw a male model standing in the front of the booth. People sitting in on a session drew the model onto a T-shirt that they took with them at the end of the lesson. Presumably, those who did a particularly good job could apply for a job with the company.

If you caught the animation bug at the Sony booth (or even if you didn’t), the number of animation packages available was staggering in both 2D and 3D versions. Old favorites like Alias/Wavefront and Softimage drew large crowds. Smaller companies like Cambridge Animation and Linker Systems also saw good interest. However, a number of new companies also entered the market. One of the most interesting of this group was a Spanish company called Crater Software. Based in Barcelona, Crater had a 20x20 stand to introduce their 2D animation system even though they have absolutely no distribution for the product in the United States. They have signed a few distributors, including one in the UK, but basically showed up at SIGGRAPH with no established channel for their software.

The most unlikely new player in the 2D animation market may be Sony. In their booth, Sony demonstrated PaZoo, a new 2D animation system that has been under development in Japan for the past few years. Although the company offered no release date and no pricing information, it was interesting to see Sony showcasing a complete, turnkey system for 2D animation built around the Windows NT platform.

Any Port in a Storm
SIGGRAPH also showcased the graphics industry’s continued shift to Windows. Although they weren’t demonstrating it on the show floor, Play/ElectricImage hinted that an NT version of the ElectricImage Animation System is nearly complete. Cambridge Animation showed Animo 2.0, the latest version of their software and now available running on NT. Even hardware is being ported to Windows NT. At the Hewlett Packard booth, the company demonstrated their VisualizeFX6 graphics card in a new, Windows NT version. Previously, this OpenGL accelerator was only available in a UNIX environment.

There was a lot to see and do at SIGGRAPH and this report only touches the surface. Even those companies that didn’t offer totally new products were showcasing new versions of their existing products. It would be difficult to mention even one stand that didn’t have something newer than at last year’s show. In many cases, things were even new compared to NAB, which was only a few short months ago. If you didn’t make it to Orlando, make your reservations now for next year’s show in Los Angeles.

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