Growls and howls hit graphics show

Siggraph may have been a little smaller than last year but exhibitors had plenty of impressive new technolgies, including: sensor chairs, movie magic and RobotPhone, which enables users to 'bear' all in real-time communications.

LOS ANGELES--The latest in bear-to-bear communication was on display here last week at Siggraph, the big annual conference for computer graphics and interactive media.

The University of Tokyo's Tachi Laboratory showed off an experimental technology called RobotPhone, which allows people in different locations to communicate with each other by voice and by manipulating two teddy bears.

The movement is transmitted in real time by snake-like robots inside the arms, legs and heads of the bears, so a mother at work, for example, can wave to her son at home by wiggling her bear's arm up and down.

Enthusiastic reaction to futuristic displays such as these couldn't mask the impact of the current tech slump. Floor space in the main exhibit hall was 126,000 square feet, down from about 143,000 last year; and the number of exhibitors fell about 6% to just over 300 companies, educational institutions and organizations, compared with about 320 in 2000, when the conference was held in New Orleans.

"The market for computer graphics has matured," said Mike Weil of Hall-Erickson, who handles exhibition management for Siggraph, "and I think that the technology economy has put pressure on the industry."

The shortfall is worse than the numbers might indicate, Weil noted, because Los Angeles is the home of entertainment companies that are increasingly important customers for computer-graphics hardware and software.

The last time Siggraph was in Los Angeles--1999--337 companies exhibited in more than 154,000 square feet of space; and attendance totaled 42,690 artists, animators, educators and researchers, according to ACM Siggraph, the professional society for computer graphics that sponsors the annual event.

Organizers initially expected about 40,000 people at this year's conference, but actual attendance reached only 34,024, according to an ACM Siggraph press release.

Weil said companies have already begun to sign up for space at next year's conference, which will be held for the first time in San Antonio, Texas. Many of the show's major exhibitors -- including computer maker Sun Microsystems; Avid Technology's special-effects software unit Softimage; Japan's electronics and entertainment giant Sony and Silicon Graphics, maker of computers and of animation software through its Alias/Wavefront unit -- have already staked out prime spots in next year's hall.

But some exhibitors "are a little bit reluctant to commit [to] financing in advance," Weil said, "and are asking for some flexibility in spreading out the payment terms" for their booths.

Cut to the chase
Despite the downturn, attendees still crowded exhibits that showed how computer animation is used to enhance movies. On Thursday, Grady Cofer, an artist with George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic, demonstrated at the SGI booth how live-action and computer-generated elements were combined to compose background images and multiply the number of apes in chase scenes for Twentieth Century Fox's movie "Planet of the Apes."

Another exhibit that created a buzz was a 3D TV display in the Dynamic Digital Depth booth. This Santa Monica, Calif., company's software automates the process for turning two-dimensional images into 3D that can be seen without special glasses. One sample that attracted attention was a 3D version of a high-energy video from Madonna's "Music" album.

The televisions, which require a specially calibrated monitor and an optical filter, cost about $22,000--making them too expensive now for viable home use, said Jenna P. Buckner, DDD's director of marketing. There's also a dearth of content for 3D TV systems, and DDD's current rate for converting 2D to 3D is roughly $5,000 a minute, depending on the complexity of the job.

But Buckner said the technology is being adopted by some businesses, and consumers should soon see it on display in a retail store and a Las Vegas hotel that she declined to name.

Dancing with wolves
For a look at the truly experimental, convention attendees browsed displays of student projects, research-lab prototypes and industry tests in a separate exhibit called Emerging Technologies, to the sounds of howls, growls and whimpers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory's Alpha Wolf project.

Participants could encourage their wolf to interact with other wolves in a computer-simulated pack, exploring the social behavior of the animals and getting a glimpse of the potential for autonomous virtual creatures.

Purdue University's Haptic Interface Research Laboratory demonstrated a chair that senses its occupants through a layer of artificial skin, and allows them to use the chair as a joystick to control, for example, movement in a video game by leaning forward or backward, or shifting from side to side.

Easily the rowdiest session at Siggraph--yet one of the most practical, say some attendees -- is the Web 3D RoundUP, a raucous competition during which selected developers of currently usable 3D Internet tools and content have one to three minutes to present their wares.

Their products--and presentation skills--are judged by an audience of several thousand people armed with noisemakers handed out by session organizers. Attendees signal disapproval by turning a small cardboard cylinder upside down, creating a sound that's a cross between "moo" and "baaa." Praise is indicated by loud whizzles: high-pitched squeaks produced by waving a colorful toy plastic hammer from side to side.

The time limit is strictly observed: A clock superimposed on large video screens placed throughout the hall counts down the seconds during presentations. Anyone who goes overtime is instantly hit with hundreds of Ping-Pong balls shot from slime-green plastic blaster guns distributed to people sitting in the first few rows.

And the winners are...
Despite these intimidating circumstances, some 30 brave souls showed up last Wednesday evening. And the winners--by whizzle volume and an actual ballot count--were:

Keyhole, a closely held Mountain View, Calif., company, that presented EarthViewer, which uses satellite imagery, digital maps and other information to produce searchable, photo-realistic pictures of more than four dozen cities and states; more are being added. (I tried the San Francisco demo that's available on the Weband, by typing in my address, was able to zoom in and count the trees on the street where I live.), a London media company, that showed "Horses for Courses," a five-minute, multilingual, interactive online movie with two different endings.

Walt Disney's Imagineering research-and-development unit, which previewed ToonTown Online, a cartoon community that allows visitors to create characters who interact with other players. Games and content are filtered and comply with the federal law that protects children's privacy on the Web. (In a dig at capitalism, participants are encouraged to battle evil robots called Cogs who, the site says, "are trying to turn this colorful Toon world into a black-and-white metropolis of skyscrapers and businesses.")

Viewpoint, a New York developer of rich-media marketing technologies, that demonstrated several new types of online advertisements, including a banner ad with a bright red Dodge Durango sport-utility vehicle that drove out of the banner and around the computer desktop -- a feat that caused the hall to erupt into a prolonged round of cheers and whizzles.

The next day, David Feldman, Viewpoint's chief strategist and executive vice president of marketing, said the enthusiastic reaction "means a lot." Siggraph "is where the state of the art is defined," he added, and the Web 3D RoundUp audience is "the toughest crowd in town."