David Em’s SIGGRAPH 98 Report


SIGGRAPH is the world’s premiere graphics event, and this year was its twenty-fifth anniversary. The first SIGGRAPH conference drew a few dozen attendees; this year’s in Orlando, Florida, drew close to fifty thousand from all over the world. How time flies.


SIGGRAPH now has its own Historical Committee, which assembled an exhibit of computer graphics gear from the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. Compared to the desktop computing powerhouses on display on the exhibition floor, the 70’s 48K DEC PDP 11 minicomputer on display could just as well have been a five thousand year old abacus.


I saw very few real breakout products at SIGGRAPH this year. Most of the new products on display represented the ongoing refinement of the medium, but there was little that blew my lid off. One big exception was Intergraph’s new single-slot Wildcat Graphics Card, which the company claims outperforms SGI’s refrigerator-sized ONYX Infinite Reality machines at an introductory price of under three thousand bucks. If Intergraph’s projection of where the Wildcat board technology is headed over the next twelve months pans out, we’ll be living in a very different Graphics computing environment than we are today before the end of next year.


The biggest non-event was the lack of a major NT hardware rollout from SGI. This was the absolute best time and place for the product launch, and I was looking forward to some exciting board architecture announcements, but it didn’t happen. I’m mystified.


On the up side, an interesting trend I noticed was that while on the one hand NT’s presence is more entrenched in the Graphics and Multimedia field than ever, a significant number of software developers are designing their product code bases to be multiplatform from the ground up. Newtek, 4DVision, Discreet Logic and quite a few others were showing products that used a shared code base for the Intel, Mac, Unix, and Alpha platforms. This is clearly a better approach than reverse engineering a program after it’s already been developed for a different platform. A related development is that many programs are being written with an eye to integration with other key (and in some cases competing) product lines.


One of the biggest pre-SIGGRAPH surprises was Avid’s takeover of Softimage from Microsoft. The move must have been pretty sudden, since the freebies Softimage was giving away at their booth were writing pens with the Softimage logo on one side, and Microsoft’s on the other. Since Avid has products that are directly competitive with Softimage’s much-trumpeted new Digital Studio editing suite, one wonders about the motivations involved. Avid owns that market segment, practically speaking, and the worldwide number of seats for editing systems in the over-$100,000 range is pretty limited.


Softimage’s new Sumatra 3D software is behind schedule, too. I’d expected the high-end Twister rendering component of Sumatra to make a big splash at the show, but it’s been delayed again, by several months, and the release code for Sumatra itself looks like sometime next year. Given that SGI/Alias’s new generation Maya software (which also experienced great delays) has been out the door since early this year, as well as Kinetix 3D MAX’s habit of significantly upgrading itself every six months or so, there must be a lot of midnight oil burning back at the home base in Montreal.


The best party Alex and I attended was at a school a few miles outside of Orlando I recently learned about called Full Sail. Full Sail started out a few years ago as a training ground for professional audio technicians. It’s grown over the years to become a full multimedia learning environment, complete with courses in film production, remote TV production, computer graphics, animation, interactivity, and Artificial Reality. There are about 1400 students, and the place looks more video post house than Bauhaus. They’ve no shortage of state of the art toys there.


The Full Sail multimedia curriculum is the best I’ve seen, and I’ve seen quite a few. I mentioned it the next day to two of my friends who happen to be Chairs of multimedia departments at well known academic institutions, and neither of them had ever heard of the place, nor had any of my other teacher friends I ran into at the conference. Nevertheless, if you’re considering parting with a sizable hunk of cash to learn about this medium, Full Sail will probably give you a better return on your investment in terms of real knowledge than some of its competition.


SIGGRAPH is big, but it wasn’t big enough to entirely take over the entire Orange County Convention Center. Dueling for space with the hordes of geeks and nerds was an international Physical Fitness convention. I’ll leave the details to your imagination, but the juxtaposition of the two events certainly provided a contrast in style.


Next year, SIGGRAPH returns to LA, and I have a feeling that what we’ll see on both the hardware and software fronts will be a major consolidation of product and platform compatibility. After twenty-five years, it’s high time all the parts and pieces that are Computer Graphics start talking to each other fluently.