Article: Hi-tech community abuzz about 3-D work

New Media

High-tech community abuzz about 3-D work

Pam Dixon 06-Aug-2000 Sunday

NEW ORLEANS — It was a raucous conference last week for the Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics, or SIGGRAPH. The usual suspects — more than 25,000 computer art professionals and enthusiasts — gathered in party central, that is, New Orleans, to hear and see the latest.

The hot topics were 3-D body scanners, printers and modeling tools; virtual reality devices, computer games and animation; scientific and medical technology; film effects; and nanotechnology. If something required a combination of arts and computing, then it was likely represented, taught, discussed or sold at the event.

This annual gathering is by far the most important of its kind. Typically, the week-long confab highlights technology that is among the most eye-popping, intriguing and new. Attendees usually include today’s most prominent scientists, computer artists, filmmakers, game developers and researchers. This year did not disappoint.

Schlepping uncomfortable loads of cumbersome laptops, conference giveaways and reams of papers, geeks of all varieties and shapes stalked the long, narrow Morial Convention Center, battling elbow-to-elbow crowds and the sweltering New Orleans heat. But nothing seemed to get in the way of their enthusiasm.

Several items at the conference had everyone buzzing. Foremost was the technical work done on the film “Hollow Man” by Don Levy and his special effects team at Sony. The buzz was not about the film but about the behind-the-scenes “Digital Human Project” that took two years to complete.

To create the special effects for the film, the artists had to create an unbelievably detailed human model. To picture the complete model, imagine all the drawings in a thick medical anatomy book; then imagine that the drawings were in a computer where you could animate and layer them one on top of another until you built a human body from veins to lymph nodes to bones to muscle tissue to skin. The model was created by using 3-D body scans of actor Kevin Bacon and software such as Paraform that allows artists to create and manipulate 3-D objects on computers.

This first complete digital human model received serious discussion at the conference from top scientists and thinkers. “That we now have access to a model of this complexity has enormous potential for medical science,” said author Ray Kurzweil.

Another much talked-about item was a joint announcement made by Macromedia and Intel. The two companies confirmed that they are co-developing a product that is essentially a 3-D-enabled Shockwave Player for the Internet. This will allow people to easily view 3-D Web pages on the Internet. While 3-D Web pages have been around for some time, they haven’t been popular due to the extra effort they take to view. Shockwave, with its 137 million users, might well break that trend for the first time.

And thanks to a stunning keynote talk about “The Age of Spiritual Machines” by author, inventor and all-around guru Kurzweil, by mid-week the word “nanotechnology” was on everyone’s lips. Sounding like something from “Star Trek,” nanotechnology is the real science of making computer components and chips smaller than the human eye can see, at sizes of less than one hundredth of an inch across. According to Kurzweil, this type of technology is well on its way to implementation.

“Already, 1mm devices can be dropped from a plane, can fly and find positions with great precision and take images and communicate with each other over a wireless network. They act as little spies and perform military objectives,” said the author. “Those devices are of comparable complexity to what I’m talking about. The miniaturization trends predict that my scenario (of people using nanobots to expand intelligence and consciousness) is quite conservative.”

The scenario Kurzweil discussed was that of a world in which humans live virtually through machines. “Using interconnections between us and machines in shared virtual environments, we can experience what it is like to be another person; we will be able to grow our minds and download knowledge.”

Beyond the hot buzz topics of the conference, the usual conference offerings provided significant innovation.

In the art gallery, amid an array of compelling digital prints and 3-D paintings, was an electronic “mirror” made of 830 wooden slats that moved to reflect the outlines of people standing and walking nearby. The work, created by Daniel Rozin, drew a stream of viewers with its eerie beauty. As you walked by the mirror, it made a quiet shuffling sound as it created your image on the fly.

In the emerging technology gallery, Takahisa Ando showed off a retinal direct imaging work. It used laser illumination and a holographic optical element to display art directly on viewers’ retinas. “This is breakthrough technology,” said Jeff Close, chair of the emerging technology committee. Star Trek Holodecks are a ways off, but certainly just got one step closer to becoming a reality.

Still viewable with just plain old, unenhanced eyes, the Computer Animation Festival showcased the latest computer graphics on film. Among the 41 finalists (of 650 entries), a clip of background scenes and the making of “Hollow Man” was, of course, on tap, as was a short film by Jon Genetti of the San Diego Super Computer Center on the visualization of the Orion nebula.

The animated visualization of Orion, like other scientific visualization projects of tornadoes and airplane flights, is necessary due to the problems giant amounts of scientific data present. “We now collect more data than we can display on a computer screen,” says Michael Bailey, senior principal scientist of the San Diego Super Computer Center. “There just aren’t enough pixels.” This animated visualization was a gorgeous way around the problem.

The Best of Show award went to the action-packed opening movie of the upcoming PlayStation2 (PS2) game “Onimusha.” The creators, artists from Links DigiWorks, used optical motion capture systems to create a battle of six samurai warriors fighting simultaneously, something that graphics technology has not been able to allow for until now.

At the convention center, more than 300 companies showed their wares. It was loud, overwhelming and, in some cases, downright obnoxious, but the innovation made it worth the effort.

Full 3-D body scanners along with 3-D printers that “print out” wax 3-D models were on display, as were sophisticated real time motion capture devices. Along with the 3-D tools were amazing advances in virtual reality devices for medical technology and the arts.

Surgeons, for example, can now put on something called a “force feedback” glove, step into a virtual room and literally feel as if they were performing a surgery. The feedback devices — which can be gloves, mice or joysticks — send vibrations and different kinds of sensations to your hands as you manipulate them, making for a complete virtual experience. Sculptors can also use the tools to virtually sculpt and then print out a detailed 3-D model in wax.

And there were plenty of free goodies. One of the best came from Not a Number BV, a company based in Amsterdam. They were, and still are, giving away free copies of a software program called Blender. Download it from, and you can design your own 3-D game for PlayStation 2. The free software can be used on most standard PCs and Macs.

At the end of the week, as the conference wound down and the noisy crowds began to leave New Orleans, there was an odd sense of no looking back. This year, a few things became clear: 3-D is here to stay and is about to get very popular on the Web; science and medicine now have the first accurate, fully digital model of a human, with unknown ramifications; and a currently obscure area of science and the arts called nanotechnology is poised to become more than the stuff of science fiction.

Pretty heady stuff for a computer graphics conference, but that’s the whole point of SIGGRAPH.

Pam Dixon’s column about arts and technology appears the first Sunday of each month.