Expo Show Floor
Softimage Face Robot demo
Final Render Stage 2 for Maya
Sony Pictures Booth
Faneuil Hall, Boston.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.
And on a more personal note, my new book was released!
With the three previous and two future SIGGRAPH conferences meeting in California, having SIGGRAPH 2006 in Boston was a real treat. Of course attendence was lower meeting in this location, but despite the small turn-out, there were cool things to see.
Courses and Papers
SIGGRAPH is first and foremost a research-oriented conference, and on the more technical side, you had papers being presented on subjects such as Super-Helices for Predicting Natural Hair Dynamics (a new way of dynamically simulating many kinds of hair) and Photo Tourism (also called Microsoft photosynth, a tool stitching together arbitrary photographs into navigable 3D models and environments). Here are links to papers on the web. For the end users who are not software developers, there were also many courses provided directly by software companies. Many artists and graphics software users were attended classes and demonstrations on the show floor or Masterclasses at an adjacent hotel.
Mova Contour Reality Capture & Softimage Face Robot
A new company called Mova demonstrated their Contour Facial Capture system. The markerless tracking system uses several cameras aimed at a performers face, and essentially produces a detailed 3D head-scan at every frame, along with full color texture maps captured by the cameras. Media reports indicate that Fight Club director David Fincher will use Contour in filming "The Curious Case of Benjamin Burton" in which Brad Pitt's character ages in reverse.
At the Softimage Users Group Meeting, Mova gave a demonstration of their capture process, which includes applying glow-in-the-dark make-up to the actor and capturing dark frames in between strobe flashes as well as illuminated full color frames. Softimage also introduced Face Robot 1.5, a new version of their facial animation and skin simulation software, which now includes support for importing motion data from Mova's system and applying its animation to different character's faces, as well as exporting animation into game engines.
Maya & Max Cohabitation
Autodesk did surprisingly well juggling 3D Studio Max, Maya, and Motionbuilder at a single large booth, and a single users group meeting. It helped that ILM was there as the first customer presentation. If there was one scene-stealing accomplishment in computer graphics this year, it was Industrial Light & Magic's work on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. ILM's presentations were talk of the convention. You couldn't ask for a better Maya demo than when they loaded up digital characters such as Davy Jones, and showed how they animated all of the tentacles on Jones and the Kraken. Presenters that also used 3D Studio Max followed, with The Orphanage sharing some fine work.
The efforts to tie together Max and Maya have brought some interesting new features. The new Maya 8 and 3D Studio Max 9 can apparently exchanged character animation by baking motion into cached point data, and this caching provides both portability of data and also an acceleration technique that stores fully deformed point positions at each frame. Maya 8 even has a more Max-like way to add primitives to the scene in locations where you click and drag, instead of creating all primitives at the origin.
The Autodesk meeting culminated with a sneak preview by Senior Scientist Duncan Brinsmead. Duncan's presentations of ongoing research have been a highlight of many Alias users group meetings in past years, such as when he showed the first peek of Maya Fluids or Maya Paint Effects. It wasn't all like old times, though. Duncan seemed to read out-loud when he said that "Autodesk remains committed to Maya, and committed to innovation." The fact that this defensive statement needed to be said at all cast a brief chill over the crowd, but the presentation that followed was inspiring. Duncan showed a unified dynamic simulation system that brought together simulation of air, cloth, particles, rigid body and soft body dynamics. In his prototype software, he was able to create knives that interactively cut through cloth or sliced solid cakes of particles. The realistic air simulation was amazing, making it possible to build working propellers, drifting, falling leaves, or to inflate or deflate objects so they behaved as if they were filled with air or water, swelling and deforming or shriveling and wrinkling as they were pumped full or allowed to deflate. (link to cool screenshots!)
A major focus in renderers this year seemed to be improving ease-of-use. Mental Images has released Mental Ray 3.5, which now ships with Maya, Max, and Softimage. In addition to performance and memory handling improvements, 3.5 is designed ot be easier to use, with a new feature to automatically set-up environmental lighting based on time of day, and improved Final Gathering that should take less tweaking and settings voodoo in order to produce high quality global illumination renders.
Pixar had some major announcements), including Renderman Pro Server 13. Pixar has recently been working on Cars, an extremely raytracing-intensive movie, and with the fast raytracing and multithread performance, version 13 has been getting an extraordinary reaction from users. Also in pursuit of ease of use, Pixar has released a new version of their Renderman for Maya plug-in, which is Renderman operating as a fully integrated Maya plug-in renderer, and announced Renderman Studio, which will combine the Maya integration of Renderman for Maya, with the RIB export and other tools of Renderman Artists Tools.
Now on version 3, the Turtle Renderer for Maya seems to be pursuing a more clearly defined market this year of game developers who want powerful baking tools. While Turtle is actually a full renderer, it has some unique baking tools, including being the first commercial product with Polynomial Texture Map support; it has controls for baking PTMs as well as previewing and rendering and exporting them to game engines.
Mudbox (the new paint-based sculpting and displacement painting tool being developed in affiliation with Weta) was not at the show this year, although many people were looking for it, and they have recently put information on a website.
The growing importance of dual-core and 64-bit CPU's was reflected all over the show. Maya 8 and 3D Studio Max 9 are now available in 64-bit versions. Pixar's Renderman Pro Server 13 is supporting multi-threading for the first time. Maya 8 also has many functions re-written to multi-thread, so that it will take advantage of extra CPUs for more than just rendering. BOXX was demonstrating rendering tasks on 64-bit machines with enormous amounts of RAM and many CPUs.
In the 1990's, Silicon Graphics IRIX-based workstations used to be standard hardware for almost everything at SIGGRAPH. This year I recall seeing only a single SGI, and that was an Octane brought out by Softimage for their 20th year retrospective, on which they ran their older software from the 1980's and 1990's.
Apple Computer didn't have a booth this year, probably because they were getting ready for their developers' conference the following week. There was no Shake Users Group Meeting this year.
True 3D Display
My favorite of all the emerging technologies displayed at SIGGRAPH this year was the True 3D Display Using Laser Plasma in the Air. Using a dangerous-looking, buzzing, high-voltage system that zapped the air with converging lasers, they were able to make distinct points of light appear in 3D space in regular thin air. I don't think it was air with water vapor or compressed air or anything special. It was like watching a miniature fireworks show as their software displayed different shapes and patterns. As they get more dots, more colors, and perhaps turn the dots into vectors or polygons, this looks like it could be everyone's dream display that simply makes bright, crisp, 3D scenes appear to float in space.
Future SIGGRAPH Conferences promise to be even bigger and better, with SIGGRAPH 2007 in San Diego and SIGGRAPH 2008 in Los Angeles. Visit www.siggraph.org to find out about future events.
Jeremy Birn is a Lighting TD at Pixar Animation Studios and the author of Digital Lighting & Rendering 2nd Edition. Opinions are those of the author alone. Article and pictures copyright © 2006 by Jeremy Birn. Please do not duplicate without permission.