SIGGRAPH, the premier conference on computer graphics, went virtual again this year. The online hub was organized like last year‘s virtual conference with a large part of on-demand lectures and papers, centered around a full week of live presentations and panel discussions. The online event focused on the established thematic frameworks and discussion groups. Meetings and session chats could be continued long after the live broadcast on an extensive Discord channel.
COVID-19 became one of the main topics of the show. The Electronic Theater introduced actual visualization scans of the virus. Scientific and artistic productions reflected pandemic experiences and showcased prevention methods. A great deal of technical solutions for contactless interfaces, distance working and pandemic information design crossed the Pacific from last year’s SIGGRAPH Asia. Remote working pipelines were in the center of most production postmortems, while the industrial exposition featured showcases of networked solution platforms.
In terms of remote working pipelines, the animation industry already shares a lot of experiences with digital cooperation models, unified technical standards and globalized production chains. SIGGRAPH 2021 presented improvements in network computing with an upcoming cooperation between Nvidia CloudXR and Google Cloud. Gamification in virtual production goes to the next level with ILM‘s second generation of LED studio walls for digital in-camera effects and with the use of game mechanics as a planning tool for film set organization.
While the Electronic Theatre maintains its well established position for flat-screen magic even under pandemic conditions, the Virtual Theater seems to turn more into a collection of excellence previously presented on traditional film festivals like Sundance, XR3 or Venice VR. But the curator’s session knows how to add SIGGRAPH value to this line-up by discussing detailed background information and making-ofs with the VR creators in a very entertaining and insightful way. The Immersive Pavilion once again suffered the most from screen- restricted conditions, squeezing the art installations into a flat world.
But anyway, this year’s SIGGRAPH refrained from going deeper into immersion: all activities were screen centered, no elaboration of last year’s virtual reality events were on offer, and the conference avoided VR as a meeting option in the media mix. The drawback from spatial computing in favor of a rather conservative and lofty Metaverse perspective could be felt here as well. Unlike high-flying media investment shows, the discussions about an overarching media platform at SIGGRAPH 2021 went much deeper into the nitty-gritty elements of technological standardization and software normalization.
VR continues to be an active research field in the Technical Paper section with inspiring results for comfort design, insights in user behaviour measuring, follow-ups of last year’s presentations for haptics or locomotion, game-oriented prediction models for render optimization or motion matching for NPCs. A very original approach to space-saving optical lenses showed promising results for bringing the bulky headsets closer to comfortable glasses. Another research laboured on the integration of mobile phones into VR – a tendency I already observed at GDC, apparently relevant for the smartphone generation but probably a bit misleading for the development of VR. While VR seems to find some ground for business application, research now turns to MR and AR in a general move.
The most extravagant and groundbreaking work was presented by a cooperation of Canadian real-time animation and circus veterans: a motion-captured circus performance based on Unreal game engine that can be experienced in real-time on 4 parallel channels as a real world event in a theatre, a broadcast event on TV, a game activity on a screen or a VR session in a headset. After preceding workshops, the production framework could now be demonstrated in a Zoom live broadcast with the announcement of a full-fledged virtual circus performance at next year’s SIGGRAPH event in Vancouver. Engine competitor Unity also focused on next year’s real world event with a digital twin of Vancouver Airport in VR and mixed reality tools for virtual cinematography. Another notable Holodeck advancement was a CAVE environment built with LED walls and Vive trackers drilled onto earphone headsets for simplified user accessibility.
Following its traditional success story in computer graphics and film effects, this year’s Virtual SIGGRAPH featured the consolidation of screening media. The event also confirmed a certain tendency to repeat historical cycles: after the first wave of VR, MR and AR, the internet bubble took over with a promise of unified media interoperability. It burst and produced fundamentally questionable constrictions in business, media and society, that now rime with the ongoing second wave of hypermedia expectations – either as a farce or as a funky flying circus show.
All images are screenshots from Virtual SIGGRAPH 2021