SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE
Computer conference is a window on a world of wonder
PAM DIXON 05-Sep-1999 Sunday
Attending the annual Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics (SIGGRAPH) conference is a lot like going to a dazzling world expo. Both events bring together art and science in a way that points to the future’s wildest possibilities.
The main difference is that instead of seeing, say, the steely beams of the Eiffel tower, SIGGRAPH goers get to see the newest, most eye-popping ways that computer-based art forms are developing.
To say that these emerging art forms have punch and power is an understatement of proportions similar to saying that Babe Ruth was a baseball player, that Beethoven wrote music or that Ingrid Bergman was an actress. To witness today’s art as it’s being created is a buzz all its own, and that is what SIGGRAPH is all about.
Last month, about 50,000 people trekked to the Los Angeles Convention Center to soak up the latest in the digital-art scene. Attendees viewed digitally enhanced films, futuristic inventions and cutting-edge electronic art, and caught up on computer tools and techniques with colleagues.
People came from just about every corner of the world, with most hailing from Germany, Japan, France and the United States. Many work in graphics-oriented professions, with a strong contingent of Hollywood film- and screen-effects pros present this year, according to organizers. There were lots of long ponytails, a geek status symbol, to be found among the crowd.
Despite the unimaginative dress, there was a sense of new ideas being tested. These were — and are — the kinds of weighty ideas that will impact how the future will look, feel and maybe even act.
The conference was divided into several main exhibit areas, each showcasing digital art as applied to diverse mediums and purposes. The primary areas were the Millennium Motel, a space dedicated to the most important technology being developed; the Electronic Schoolhouse, a space that explored educational applications of art and technology; and the TechnOasis, an electronic gallery that displayed art of the first rank.
There was also a vendors’ exhibit area where, if able, one could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars purchasing digital-arts software and hardware. And away from the crowds, nestled into the nooks and crannies of the convention center, were lectures, classes and film screenings.
Easily the most stunning exhibit was the Millennium Motel.
“The theme of the Millennium Motel came about because the conference organizers wanted a place that was a catalyst for thought,” says Kathryn Saunders, chair of the SIGGRAPH Emerging Technologies Committee, which was responsible for planning the exhibit. “A lot of the artworks within the hotel were literally pulled out of research labs to be shown here.”
Saunders wasn’t exaggerating. It’s difficult to convey the enveloping, super-advanced techno-environment within the display. Being in the Motel was like being in a completely new kind of reality, much like strolling through someone’s vision of the future.
As you entered the space a huge, interactive display pulsed light, lasers and music all around you. By pulling on strings hanging from the ceiling, you controlled the lights and the music. About 20 other people were pulling strings along with you, so what you saw and heard was always a surprise.
Once you were inside the Motel, dozens of alcoves housed the artistic research projects. There were bottles that released music when opened, a flowing light display that mimicked the underwater characteristics of a pool, and a drawing tool that allowed you to sketch by moving your arm and hand through space as a digital tablet recorded your movements.
A “City of News” alcove boasted the famed MIT Media Lab research scientist Steven Schwartz, who cheerily demonstrated his latest gadget, a fully operational computer screen embedded into a pair of glasses. When you put on the glasses, you could see the screen, which was slightly larger than a pin head. Somehow, thanks to beam-splitting technology, the screen was readable despite its size.
“The MIT Media Lab has been involved in wearable computing research since the early ’90s,” Schwartz said. “The question really isn’t virtual reality anymore — it’s augmented reality and how to make it work for us.” Schwartz is working on importing Web pages to the tiny computer screen so users can access news and Web info on the go.
One of the eeriest works in the Motel was a digital cloning system that re-created Marlene Dietrich. The “face mapping” technology the project employed has become so advanced that it’s possible to re-create just about any person’s face digitally, as long as you have a few pictures of them and the patience to do detailed work. The film clip of the digital Dietrich drew crowds of people who just hovered, gazing in wonder at a moving image that seemed far too real for comfort.
Interactive Grecian urns
The notion of involving the viewer interactively in artworks was especially popular in the Electronic Schoolhouse. There were virtual museums, virtual cities and 3-D interactive learning environments on display. The most compelling one came from a Pratt Institute graduate student.
The project, called “Minotaur,” was a work designed for children ages 5 to 8. “I wanted to weave archaeology, audiovisual learning and kinesthetic art more closely together,” says Claudia Chow, who created the project as part of completing her master’s of fine arts from Pratt. “So often, children do not get to connect physically with the technology they’re learning from.”
In “Minotaur,” Pratt fixed the connection problem by creating an environment where children dug in a sandbox for pieces of a broken Grecian urn. As the children found the pieces, they fit them together to reconstruct the vase. The catch was that each piece was invisibly wired so that when the children fit a piece into the vase, it triggered a relevant video snippet about the Grecian culture that was displayed above the urn.
In a nod to still images and museum-like installation pieces, the TechnOasis section of the conference showcased — in a traditional gallery style — the best of the smaller pieces of electronic art being created today.
Some of the art involved flowing light displays of gracious, soft beauty. Other pieces were elegant examples of how digital technology could be used to create edgy graphic images, definitely making the argument that computer software and printers are viable artistic tools, right up there with the paintbrush and chisel.
Naturally, with any conference you get plenty of hype, and SIGGRAPH was no exception. Most of the hoopla was located on the floor of the vendor-display area, where salespeople hawked the software and hardware that made all the electronic magic happen.
Magical electric room
Some of the tools were hardly believable.
FakeSpace, for instance, is a manufacturing tool that lets users load detailed information into a database, then look at the information graphically as displayed within a completely electronic room.
“FakeSpace is a 10-by-10 foot interactive room,” said a FakeSpace representative. “It allows manufacturers and people working in the defense industry to collaborate virtually on projects requiring detailed visualization. When the data is in 3-D, you get a whole new perspective.”
No kidding. The walls and ceiling of the interactive space electronically displays detailed images and lets you navigate through them as if you were walking or flying. It’s far beyond virtual reality, with technology now allowing for something more akin to 100 percent enhanced reality. The technology was originally developed for car manufacturers, but it could just as easily be used for interactive nature scenes, 3-D movies or historical re-creations. And that’s the thing about SIGGRAPH.
It’s not just about looking at individual works of computer art, however great they may be. It’s also about looking at the technology that artists are using today — technology that will likely move into the broader culture in a couple of years’ time — and seeing how it will change the layout of people’s lives.
Pam Dixon’s column about technology and the arts appears the first Sunday of each month.