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The Magic of SIGGRAPH 2006International Computer Graphics Convention Comes to Boston

By Benjamin P. Gleitzman

As a child I was captivated by Disney World. Even now, the offer of a world of magic is hard to resist. After attending SIGGRAPH 2006, the Special Interest Group on Graphics and Interactive Techniques, I decided that the self-proclaimed “happiest place on earth” has some tough competition.

SIGGRAPH, presented by the Association for Computing Machinery, is one of the largest conferences devoted to computer graphics in the world. Now in its 33rd year and one of 34 special interest groups presented by the ACM, SIGGRAPH 2006 combines art, design, and technology in a refreshingly energetic atmosphere. Open to the general public, SIGGRAPH 2006’s return to Boston after numerous years in Los Angeles heralds a renewed atmosphere of innovation and progress in the New England area.

Over the course of five days of lectures, exhibits, and special presentations, thousands of people from around the world visited the Boston Convention Center to get a glimpse into the future of graphic technologies and to witness graphic design products already on the market.

The Style of Technology

Blending the dynamic worlds of fashion and science, Monday night’s fashion show “Unravel” presented designs with a technological aspect in mind. Amid pulsing beats, video DJs mixed live footage of the crowd with enough cutting edge distortions and filters to make the audience’s heads spin.

Designs showcased included clickSneaks, a pair of women’s tennis shoes equipped with speakers that play back the sound of Stiletto heels with each step, Flame 5, a jacket that alerts the wearer through heat when an SMS message is received over a Bluetooth enabled phone, and the No-Contact Jacket, which thwarts attackers by sending 80,000 volts of low amperage current through the material. The Computer Hood by Joe Malia is a soundproof full-face mask that links the wearer’s face with a piece of technology (such as a computer monitor). Outsiders can touch the back of the hood to record messages which can be played back later, after the wearer emerges from the digital cocoon.

Accessories included Diana Eng’s Mathematical Knits, a scarf with ruffles that fan out according to the Fibonacci sequence, and Kelly Dobson’s ScreamBody, a portable device that relieves tension by both muffling and recording the user’s screams of frustration throughout the day, allowing them to be played back later in a more appropriate setting.

Peering Over the Tech Horizon

Back at the conference proper, the Emerging Technologies exhibit and corporate booths provide the main allure for the average visitor to SIGGRAPH. Thousands of square feet filled with cutting edge graphic design tools are enough to make any programmer’s mouth water, and to put dollar signs in the eyes of corporate types. Big name companies such as ATI, NVIDIA, Adobe, and Pixar were in attendance to debut their newest commercially available graphic design creations. Niche companies such as Syflex, which specializes specifically in cloth simulation, also came to strut their stuff on the corporate floor.

More die-hard veterans of SIGGRAPH came for the in-depth lectures on computer graphics given by top individuals in the field offered throughout the week. Keynote speaker John Rohde, executive designer and vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering, addressed a crowd on Monday with a speech entitled “From Myth to Mountain: Insights Into Virtual Placemaking” which touched upon his work as lead designer of Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Touchable Tech

The SIGGRAPH Emerging Technologies exhibit is where visitors can touch, feel, grab, and dance their way into the future of human-computer interaction. DigiWall enhances the basic climbing wall by providing games in the form of interactive lighted hand and foot holds connected to an array of sensors. The Forehead Retina System, designed at the University of Tokyo, allows the user to experience tactile electrical feedback through the forehead to real objects in the environment. In addition to such exhibits by large companies and universities, Japanese high school students presented a ghost-buster style game where two players search for ghosts with a spotlight and back mounted vacuum cleaner,

Other exhibits presented vibrant holographic displays controlled through ingenious methods. A crowd favorite was the 16 foot long Multi-Touch Interaction Wall developed at New York University which senses multiple points of touch from numerous users. No additional input equipment is required since maps, tables, and games can be controlled with both hands and fingers on a rear-projected screen. Another exhibit created a real-time video mosaic of the observer using live video feeds from cable TV channels.

Among the exhibits presented by MIT’s Tangible Media Group at the Media Lab were Topobo, a modular toy with kinetic memory capable of remembering actions taught by the user, I/O Brush, a painting tool that grabs snapshots from the physical world that can be used to draw in a digital environment, and AudioPad, an electronic music performance instrument that can combine music samples on the fly using objects on a tabletop surface.

A World of Imagination

Beyond the buzzwords and corporate jargon, almost everyone can find something appealing at the convention. Adults wandering the floor of the Emerging Technologies exhibit can find their inner child along with the futuristic technologies. Children can watch their dreams come alive while interacting with a digital environment that can be touched and seen. While many of the exhibits are far from market release, the promise of future interactive technologies charges the convention with a tangible sense of anticipation. SIGGRAPH remains a glimpse into the future, a journey into the unexpected, and an escape from the commonplace.