Real Time, Live!

July 26th, 2016

The highlight for me today at the SIGGRAPH conference was the “Real Time, Live!” show. This is the event, repeated each year, where people show their computer graphic projects up on stage in front of a large, raucous and very appreciative audience.

The kicker, of course, is that everything you see is happening live. It’s all real-time graphics, real-time performance, nothing canned. Which means that things can go wrong.

And they do. Every year something goes amiss, and a demo doesn’t perform as planned, for one reason or another. But then someone reboots the computer, things start up again, and in the end it somehow always seems to work out.

Every year, as computers get faster, and graphics gets better, the bar seems to raise, and the RTL demos become ever more impressive. But I think this year the excitement was even greater than usual, because VR and AR may really be a thing.

So the RTL event is now especially relevant, and I could feel the buzz in the room. The audience was paying extra attention, looking for cues about what new forms of entertainment and interaction might be just around the corner, what the future might hold.

The SIGGRAPH RTL event, as cool as it is, can’t actually predict the future. But if you are trying to predict the future, you could do worse.

E.T.

July 25th, 2016

The SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater (or just the “E.T.” if you’ve been going long enough) is one of the most anticipated parts of the conference. Its the showcase for the best of the best of this year’s crop of computer animations.

And like everything else, it has its good years and its bad years. This was one of its good years.

I think we’ve finally gotten to a point where computer animation is no longer about “Hey look, I’m using a computer!” The medium is finally maturing, and filmmakers are becoming more confident. Computer animated films are focusing on the good stuff: storytelling, plot and character.

The transition is kind of like what film itself went through a century ago. At first the cinema was all about trains rushing toward the screen, or people popping out of drawings and disappearing in a puff of smoke.

Then at some point filmmakers grew up, and the medium stopped being all about itself. And that’s when it started to get interesting.

Faster Forward

July 24th, 2016

I mark each year by the annual ACM/SIGGRAPH Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques. Not just by the conference itself, but by the opening “Fast Forward” session, in which all of the many brilliant technical papers are presented, one after another, in a single two hour session.

It’s a very heady experience. The authors of each paper have less than a minute, using words and video, to convey the essence of their paper, and hopefully entice conference attendees to come to their session later in the week.

It is by far the single densest performance of brilliant and exciting new ideas that I have ever seen anywhere, and this year it was even better. That’s because the field itself is changing.

After a period when computer graphics seemed to grow inward on itself (with papers that essentially said “My math is a more refined version of your math!”) it is now growing outward again to explore new areas. Robotic furniture, 3D printed machines, telepresent cartoons, cameras that see around corners, these are just a few of the many varied topics that SIGGRAPH now eagerly embraces.

None of these topics is “computer graphics”, strictly speaking, but that bit about “Interactive Techniques” greatly expands the possibilities. The SIGGRAPH technical community is clearly now taking that part of its charter more seriously.

I am completely delighted by all this.

Red sun in a smoldering sky

July 23rd, 2016

There has been a 12,000 acre brush fire my first day here in L.A. Half the sky is a clear bright robin’s egg blue, the other half an ominously smoldering ochre.

Here is a photo I took today from my friend’s car:

The red sun hangs high in the brooding summer sky, shining through the smoldering ash like a drop of fresh blood:

On such a day, I am glad I do not believe in omens.

Alternate reality airport

July 22nd, 2016

This evening I am flying to Los Angeles to attend the annual SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference. If you are in the field of computer graphics or computer animation, that is definitely the place to be.

On my way to the gate, I passed various other gates with flights to places like Madrid and Paris. Part of me asked “Why can’t I just get on one of those?”

If I were at a bus or train station, I could just hop on board, if the vehicle had any seats available. I started to wonder whether it would be possible, in some alternate reality, for airlines to work this way.

“There’s a plane leaving from this gate to Madrid. Why can’t I just go there now, on a whim?” I wondered. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could?

Cruz control

July 21st, 2016

Watching the speech by Ted Cruz at the Republican National Convention, the way it played out seems so obvious. Perhaps a literary analogy will convey a sense of the forces at work here.

The Joker finally has a shot at becoming the Mayor of Gotham City. At last his brilliant and diabolical plan to sow mayhem from within, to tear down the very fabric of rationality and rule of law, to turn society itself into a bad joke, is within his grasp.

So the Joker invites his old friend and sometime rival — Lord Voldemort, all the way from Hogwarts — to give a key speech at the convention. Sure there’s bad blood between the evil clown and the evil misanthrope. After all, the Joker did attack both the wife and father of He Who Must Not Be Named.

But in the end they are both fighting on the same side, right? Wrong.

For Lord Voldemort, still nursing his wounds, is not one to forgive a grudge. When all is said and done, the old Death Eater is not willing to go along with the plan.

Surely, the Joker must have thought, the Dark Lord will hold his nose and go with the program. He wouldn’t dare cut off his own nose to spite his face.

But what the Joker forgot is that Lord Voldemort doesn’t actually have a nose. Silly, silly Joker.

My speech

July 20th, 2016

My fellow Americans,

From time to time I am asked to give a speech. I’ve decided that from now on I will always give the following speech. But first I would like to clarify a few things.

In writing my beautiful speech, my team of writers took notes on my life’s inspirations, and in some instances included fragments that reflected my own thinking. I think my immigrant experience and love for America shines through in my speech, which makes it such a success.

In other words, what follows is a completely original speech, by me. It is my speech. Tony Schwartz did not write this speech, any more than Jason Miller wrote the previous paragraph.

I was raised with these values: You work hard for what you want in life. That your word is your bond and you do what you say you are going to do and keep your promise. That you treat people with dignity and respect.

Pass those lessons on to the next generation and to the many generations to follow. Because we want our children, and all children in this nation, to know that the only limit to your achievements is the reach and strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.

Thank you.

† Sorry Jason Miller, I couldn’t resist.

Deep nap

July 19th, 2016

After a lot of travel and way too much time working without a break, I find myself at my cousin’s house. These few days offer a rare interlude of quiet and relaxation.

And of course one of the very first things I did was take a nap. But not just any nap. One of those really long deep naps.

The kind of nap where, if this were a science fiction novel, I would awaken to find out that the laws of the Universe had shifted while I was asleep, that mushrooms have somehow become sentient and giant pterodactyls now roam the skies.

I’m sure you’ve had naps like that. You are so tired that your brain needs a complete reset, so your body rises to the occasion and says “OK brain, here’s your chance. Shutting down now for garbage collection and general maintenance.”

Having just now emerged from one of those blissful slumbers, I am feeling tired but happy, fully recharged and well rested. Dopamine levels are up, and all is right with the world.

And I am happy to report, from a cursory examination of the skies, that there are no pterodactyls overhead. Haven’t checked in yet on the mushrooms.

Demos and narratives

July 18th, 2016

There are two fundamentally different approaches to giving a demo: Show a lot of cool stuff, or tell a great story.

It’s not that one of these approaches is “correct”. It’s more that they are complementary ingredients that need to be balanced.

A demo that just throws one feature after another at you can be impressive, but it can also grow numbing. It’s hard to remember what you’ve seen, or to make sense of it.

Ideally you want people to walk away with an overarching message. That’s where the story comes in. My current belief is that it is better to show fewer things, and leave people with a very clear understanding of what they have just seen.

And perhaps even more important: A very clear understanding of why they have seen it.

Debugging

July 17th, 2016

Tomorrow there will be a big sponsor visit to our lab. So this evening I was working with my brilliant student Aaron, debugging one of our demo programs.

As is often the case, we discovered after about two hours that the cause of the bug was something we’d never suspected. In fact, we had been looking in the wrong place entirely.

The solution was incredibly simple, once we finally saw it. In some ways it felt as though we had just wasted two hours.

Trying to be cheerful about the whole thing, I told Aaron that it hadn’t really been a waste of time. We had learned something, a new place to look for problems in the code, that maybe we could use the next time around.

Aaron didn’t seem completely convinced. “That would be the hope,” he shrugged.

I decided to give him the benefit of my greater maturity and experience. “Learning from your mistakes works for everything,” I told him. “Except, of course, for relationships.”