july 2005, los angeles

siggraph takes place once a year, and sees the gathering of two different breeds of computer graphics beings: thinkers and doers, ie. academia and professionals. many new ideas come from academia, but many also come from industry, including a good chunk of the more practical ones. anyway, the best thinkers in industry are often (but not always) well educated, so the relationship is symbiotic. the research paper presentations mostly come from academia, but in recent years, more and more have come from industry, so perhaps the balance is evening out a bit.

siggraph is possibly the only major computer gaphics conference where these two species truly mingle. industry is poorly represented in most other academic symposiums, such as eurographics, and academia is not visible at many other trade shows, such as n.a.b. because of this mix, it is still interesting to go there, even though it has become somewhat smaller and less important in recent years. unfortunately, certain groups of people, including specific companies and educational institutions, have a disproportionate amount of influence in what goes on, who gets chosen to present, who gets awards, and so on. perhaps because of the general dissatisfaction with this state of affairs, other venues are growing in importance.

anyway, i went, saw, learned and had a good time. los angeles is awfully far from berlin, and i had to travel 16 hours or more each way in two-segment flights, both through london-heathrow. going west, i felt more tired, but also recovered faster. coming back east, i felt fine for two days, but eventually had to take a day off work due to over-exhaustion.

these pictures are from the trip over. the cutlery we got in the british airways berlin-london flight were an insult. you couldn't possibly do anything useful with these silly little pieces of plastic. the strange green plane was parked in the back of heathrow. i have no clue what it might be. if you know, mail me. the 747-400 was my flight from london-los angeles, and i must say that i was pretty happy with the service and the food. the comfort is a bit less nirvana-inspiring, but then i cannot imagine what kind of seat you would be comfortable in for that long. on the backs of all seats was a little screen, individually controllable, with 18 channels. as soon as the flight was properly underway, we could choose from several great movies. on the flights there and back i watched several movies, including l.a. confidential, million dollar baby, the hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy, constantine, creature comforts, true crime, and maybe one or two others which i forget.

we arrived in los angeles, and after a long wait for the shuttle bus (take a cab, the shuttle bus downtown takes forever to come), we finally got to our hotel, the hotel wilshire grand. like almost every other hotel i have been in, the lobby was fancy and the rooms were... not tasteless, but simply devoid of anything which one might have perceived as an opinion on the part of the person who designed them. they were simply offensively inoffensive. anyway, it was fine, and i tried not to think too much about the fact that i could be in any city in the world, and still have a room which looked exactly like this one. these faceless international hotels are one of the less pleasing inventions of the states. the view was okay.
the alias user's group meeting was at the orpheum, and was quite enjoyable. there were presentations by various people from alias, as well as some important customers. here we see ilm. at the end, duncan brinsmead showed some cool new features, and a hilarious, if amateurish south-park-style short film he put together. here is a shot from it.
the mental images reception was pretty cool, i must say. it took place at the skybar of the mondrian hotel, a much more posh place than the ones in which we mere mortals were staying. i had some very ineresting conversations with various customers, and met george borshukov and haarm-pieter duiker again, two great guys who worked on the second and third matrix movies, and who worked very closely with mental images to develop mental ray at the time. just before we left, we had some fun in the lobby with their funky furniture.
we went to a bar across the street, which was meant to be pretty cool, and the place was indeed very interesting, but unfortunately it happened to be an off night, and no one was there.
i recently picked up a great modeling package called modo, and eagerly signed up for the meeting at the orpheum, where modo 201, the new version, was meant to be unveiled. here are two pictures from the event. in the end, everything they presented was very interesting and impressive, but i still can't say it was what i had hoped for. there are other strong packages out there for modeling, including not only the usual suspects, xsi, maya and 3ds max, but also some newer modeling packages, namely silo, hexagon and z-brush, the latter of which is more of a detailing package than actual modeling, but has some great functionality. i was hoping that the next version of modo would add some features from the competition, but although there was some of that, there was a lot more features related to rendering and texturing, and this is where i start to get a little nervous.

the 3d animation competition is very stiff, and the companies are eking out a meagre existence. the prices are cut-throat, and lay-offs are not uncommon. at the moment, the prices are so low that it almost looks like the major players are trying to knock each other out of existence, rather than setting tenable price levels. it is very expensive to develop a top-notch animation package. there are many, many complicated and difficult-to-develop features you need to have, even to be in the running, and the developers who can do this work are hard to find, and expensive to hire. how luxology expects to compete in this market i don't know. they are established as a modeling tool, but i do think they could spend a little longer perfecting this, before moving on. anyway, some neat stuff was presented, but as i said, it makes me nervous to see what they have been working on. i wish them all the best.

softimage had its user group meeting at the millennium biltmore hotel, crystal & tiffany ballrooms, quite a fancy place. they had the usual customer testimonies from the faithful, but also a special live (with translation) presentation by hayao myazaki, a japanese director who is a living legend already. his most recent film, howl's moving castle, has just come to germany. overall, the new features of softimage|xsi were very impressive indeed, to say the least. i would have bought xsi instead of maya if they were on the mac platform, and not only because i used to work at softimage. ah well.
los angeles is a huge city. so huge that you can't really characterise it. you could describe one part of los angeles for hours, and still give no clue as to what the rest was like. these pictures here give a vague idea of what downtown los angeles is like at night. the area is wealthy, but strictly businesses and hotels, and very few bars and restaurants, and absolutely no residential area. as in the one picture here, you see helipads atop skyscrapers, strange slanted streets, a weird touristy staircase (atop which sits a great steakhouse, mccormick & schmick's seafood restaurant, where i had a great dinner with my friend ludovick and a colleague of his from janimation), and you see almost no one in the streets, just hotel guests looking for something to do, homeless people who are often half crazy, and a few sinister types, for whom you cross the street.

we also visited julia and paulo and lisa in the westin hotel bonaventure, the last skyscraper below, from where i took these pictures from the elevator and of the lobby.

the los angeles convention center hosted the siggraph conference and exhibition this year, as it has so often. siggraph is usually one year in l.a. and the next year somewhere else. in 2006, for example, it will be in boston. in 2000 it was in new orleans, but i guess there is little chance that it will be there again anytime soon. it was once in chicago, but the unions were so strong there that people weren't even allowed to lay out their own extension chords and plug in their own computers (at least, that's what i heard), so it never went to chicago again. the main rooms are humongous, but mostly people sit only near the front when they are really interested, and near the back when they want to be able to leave quickly.

the theme this year was definitely centered around george lucas and star wars, with costumed people, a 20' x-wing fighter in the lobby, and much more. i bought a bad-guy t-shirt from the ilm booth. interesting people walk around the corridors, such as this guy, carrying around a multi-view camera recording everything around him. this material will probably later be assembled into some kind of panoramic film, perhaps quicktime vr or something similar. finally, some dancers were doing their usual thing for the motion capture cameras. these girls were really funny however, and full well knowing that their avatars were soldiers, they were sneaking up behind each other and doing unspeakable things. here in my picture, they do nothing. the quality is low simply because it is a snap from a movie.

i went with bart and some berlin colleagues to visit the guys at the griffin observatory and see what they were doing there. they had some minor trouble with mental ray, and we looked at their problem and gave them some advice. i really enjoy visiting actual customers and getting real feedback and a first-hand look at how they work. here is a picture from outside their offices, currently located in some portables next to the zoo, while the observatory is being built.
after the week was over, i took an extra few days off, to see some of the other parts of los angeles. i booked a room at the furama, near the los angeles airport, lax. the furama was recommended by a few people i know as being cheap, convenient, and nice, which was all true. outside they had this car you wouldn't believe, a stretched hummer h2...
on this weekend i was meeting beth, a former daveworld email list co-member. i have since left the list, but i made a few good friends in the few years i was on it, and beth was one. i was also meant to meet marya, but she was busy preparing for a new job and couldn't make it down from san luis obispo. hopefully next time it will work out.

while i was waiting for beth to arrive from san diego, where she has since moved, i walked down to the beach and back. southern california has some (to a european/canadian) highly unusual plants, often with thick leaves made for holding water. on the way down to the water (on this day it was very smoggy, but it looks like it was just overcast in the pictures; it wasn't) and on the way back, i took several pictures of these plants.

by the time i made it back, beth arrived in short order, and asked me what i would like to see. being the freak i am, i asked if we could go to the apple store (there isn't one in berlin yet, and i have never been to one anywhere), so off we went. it was in a nice new shopping centre, with its own little quaint streets, and a tram. the shop itself was really nice, but it was a bit too full of both people and things for my taste. i guess with 15 million people in los angeles, and only two or three apple stores, it is bound to be busy on the weekends.

after this we went to 'the la brea tar pits', which if you translate 'la brea', means 'the the tar tar pits' :) the tar pits were outside, with the animals they pulled out of the area being inside, but we decided to skip that, and just went past the museum store, where i bought a copy of the bbc's 'walking with dinosaurs', as well as some cool magnets for jana.

after all this, we had lunch at canter's deli, delicious! we then tried to get to the japanese gardens but it was late, so i got this picture of a tree instead. in pasadena, we took this picture, and then joined beth's sister for a delicious dinner. los angeles has a constant haze over it. sometimes you see some clear sky, but just as often, the visibility is quite low. you can see the brown tinge to the air in this picture.

the next day beth drove down from her sister's place and we went past marina del rey, to venice beach. this place has a good reputation, but is also a bit different. there are lots and lots of little shops and vendors, selling everything from musical instruments to sunglasses, paintings, funky drag bikes, and lots more. one building had a nice copy of a van gogh painting, on the side. we also saw a really cool old volkswagen pickup truck/bus, and a building with david looking out.
the other major cliche i wanted to see was the hollywood sign, so we headed up to the area where the walk of fame was, and looked from there. ripley's believe or not was there, with a dinosaur peeking out. we parked and entered the hollywood and highland mall. in the middle of this outside mall, a bunch of artists were busy competing in a sidewalk painting competition. we looked around and had lunch in a good pizza place. from here, looking upwards and backwards we had a good view of the "bridge" they have built from which you can see the hollywood sign. apparently, the holloywood sign used to say hollywoodland, and was put up by a contractor building a residential subdivision. by the time the subdivision was built, everyone liked the sign so much that they just removed the land part, and left the rest.
the walk of fame passes sid grauman's chinese theatre, with stars for each of many famous people (and non-people). as we got closer to the theatre, we saw some customed, but honestly pretty lame, actors/stand-ins, posing for the public. if batwoman had looked like this, they wouldn't have made a movie of her. in front of the theatre itself was the concrete rectangles the really big stars made their hand and footprints in. i tried humphrey bogart on for size, and beth tried merryl streep. humphrey had odd hands, with some fingers being longer than mine, and some shorter. in this picture it looks like they are all longer, but my hands moved back a bit as i turned for the picture.
finally, i left. at the airport, this is the lineup which had formed behind me. luckily i came quite early. the security is very high, but to be honest, it is also very ad-hoc and chaotic, and i think it would not be difficult to study it for a while and find a hole. the baggage-scanning machines were everywhere, behind the security lines as well as in front, and no one seemed to know exactly what was going on. i understand the need for increased security, but to be honest, there is still a long way to go to make it effective
it was quite an interesting trip. rather than focusing on new technology, i focused on customers and their complaints. i tried to figure out what makes them not like our product, and i will try to fix as many of these issues as i can in the coming months. i have just finished with one issue, the poor filtering the rasterizer performed in the secondary buffers, and there are more things to come. hopefully in the coming time, people will start to like our product more. it is clear that mental ray is very powerful, and that if you know how to use it, you can get some spectacular results. however, it is very difficult to use, and there are some snags.

on the whole though, what made the trip great was the people. bart, andy, beth and many others all made it much more than it would have been if i had not known anyone. seeing a place as complex as los angeles is essentially impossible. i have still barely scratched the surface, but i did see some of the big checklist items i wanted to see, and then some. next time i will look for things i know less about. thanks to everyone!