March 2011

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There  have been a lot of awards recently of interest to readers of this blog; I thought it would be useful to provide an overview, as well as covering some of the more obscure awards.

The Oscars are by far the most well-known awards, bestowed annually since 1929 by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Oscars are voted on by Academy voting members (who total about 6,000) in the relevant disciplines (e.g. directors vote for Best Director, actors for Best Actor, etc.). The Scientific and Technical Awards are especially notable; they are given in a separate ceremony in early February, two weeks before the main awards ceremony celeb-fest.

Although some of the Sci-Tech awards are still for “analog” stuff like camera mounts, lenses, and film emulsions, in recent times most of the honored developments have been digital. All except three of this year’s winners were for digital advances (the other three were for computer-controlled camera and prop cable suspension systems, so partially digital as well).

The most directly relevant award was for a development described in a SIGGRAPH paper (the 2004 paper, “An Approximate Global Illumination System for Computer Generated Films”, was even mentioned in the award text). The award was given to Eric Tabellion and Arnauld Lamorlette, “for the creation of a computer graphics bounce lighting methodology that is practical at feature film scale”. This technique (as described in the 2004 paper) is a fast one-bounce GI method that uses interesting approximations for both geometry and surface material. The paper is well worth reading; the technique was highly influential for film rendering and some of the ideas are relevant for real-time rendering as well.

Another computer graphics-related award was given to Dr. Mark Sagar “for his early and continuing development of influential facial motion retargeting solutions”. Dr. Sagar pioneered the use of the Facial Animation Coding System (FACS) for film production, starting with Monster House and supervising its use on King Kong and Avatar; this system is now widely used, with growing adoption by the game industry as well. Dr. Sagar also won an Academy Sci-Tech award last year, for his work on Light Stage.

As seen in the cable suspension case, Academy Sci-Tech awards tend to come in “clumps”. As a particular technology area is recognized as important by the Academy, several different groups who did important work in that area receive awards in one year. For example, a bunch of last year’s Sci-Tech awards were related to the digital intermediate (DI) process. The biggest “clump” this year was for another graphics-related topic: render queues (software used to manage render farms, the earliest  – and still most widespread in film production – form of parallel graphics processing):

The final computer graphics-related SciTech award was given to Tony Clark, Alan Rogers, Neil Wilson and Rory McGregor “for the software design and continued development of cineSync, a tool for remote collaboration and review of visual effects” (cineSync is developed and sold by Rising Sun Research).

Some of the main Academy Awards (announced in late February) are also of interest to readers of this blog; there’s a lot of information about these awards out there so I’ll just mention the winners for Visual Effects (Inception), Animated Feature Film (Toy Story 3), and Animated Short Film (The Lost Thing).

The closest video game equivalent to the Oscars are the Interactive Achievement Awards, bestowed annually by the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences at the annual D.I.C.E. Summit in early February. Similarly to the Oscars, they are voted for by registered AIAS members, who must be working in the appropriate game development discipline to vote on a given award. This year’s awards of interest to readers of this blog include: Outstanding Achievement in Animation (God of War III), Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction (Red Dead Redemption), and Outstanding Achievement in Visual Engineering (Heavy Rain).

The Game Developers Choice Awards are also prestigious, and are bestowed at the annual Game Developers Conference (which takes place in late February or early March). One must be a registered member of the Gamasutra website (owned by United Business Media, which also owns the Game Developers Conference) to nominate or vote, and the advisory committee which oversees the process is chosen by the editors of Game Developer Magazine (also owned by United Business Media) and Gamasutra. The Game Developers Choice Awards are unusual in thus being managed by a for-profit corporation rather than a nonprofit professional organization. This year’s awards of interest: Best Technology (Red Dead Redemption), and Best Visual Arts (Limbo).

Regarding video game awards, one notable event that happened this year (on February 12th) was the first Grammy award for music composed for a video game. The Grammys don’t have a dedicated award for video game music – this award was for a song, Baba Yetu, originally composed by Christopher Tin for Civilization IV and released on the 2009 album Calling All Dawns (which itself won a Grammy in addition to the award for Baba Yetu).

The awards given by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) are almost as well-known in the UK as the Oscars are in the US. BAFTA gives awards for TV shows and video games as well as movies.

The British Academy Film Awards were held in mid-January. Awards of interest: Animated Film (Toy Story 3), Short Animation (The Eagleman Stag – which was stop-motion, not CG), and Special Visual Effects (Inception).

One of the British Academy Television Craft Awards was of interest: Visual Effects (The Day of the Triffids).

The British Academy Video Game Awards were held in mid-March. Awards of interest: Artistic Achievement (God of War III), and Technical Innovation (Heavy Rain). A minor controversy erupted after Red Dead Redemption did not win any awards – it turns out that it was not entered by the developers (Rockstar Games), most likely for reasons related to a perceived snub that Grand Theft Auto IV (also developed by Rockstar) received in the 2009 awards.

The last set of awards I will discuss are perhaps the most directly relevant for this blog, though not as well-known as the ones previously mentioned. The Visual Effects Society (VES) is a professional organization representing practitioners in visual effects and computer-generated animation for TV, film and video games. Among their other activities, they host the VES Awards every year in early February. Due to these awards’ focus, most of them are of interest – the full list can be found here. I’ll highlight some of the most interesting awards categories, but first I wanted to mention this year’s VES Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen is a giant in the field; his pioneering stop-motion effects work on many films, from Mighty Joe Young (1949) to Clash of the Titans (1981) inspired many of today’s most prominent filmmakers. I’ve been going through his films on recent weekends with the wife and kids; most of them are great fun and well worth seeing. I’m not sure why it took the VES nine years to recognize Harryhausen (even the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, which snubbed him for the special effects Oscars throughout his career, finally awarded him the Gordon E. Sawyer Award in 1992).

This year’s VES video game award winners: Outstanding Real-Time Visual Effects in a Video Game (Halo: Reach; presented to Marcus Lehto, Joseph Tung, Stephen Scott, and CJ Cowan from Bungie – two clips related to the submission are available on YouTube: “work to be considered” clip, “before and after” clip), Outstanding Animated Character in a Video Game (StarCraft II – Sarah Kerrigan; presented to Fausto De Martini, Xin Wang, Glenn Ramos, and Scott Lange from Blizzard), Outstanding Visual Effects in a Video Game Trailer (World of Warcraft – for the Cataclysm cinematic; presented to Marc Messenger and Phillip Hillenbrand, Jr. from Blizzard).

Notable VES feature film-related awards: VES Visionary Award (Christopher Nolan), Outstanding Visual Effects in a Visual-Effects Driven Feature Motion Picture (Inception), Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Feature Motion Picture (Hereafter), Outstanding Animation in an Animated Feature Motion Picture (How to Train Your Dragon), Outstanding Achievement in an Animated Short (Day & Night), Outstanding Animated Character in a Live Action Feature Motion Picture (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 – Dobby), Outstanding Animated Character in an Animated Feature Motion Picture (How to Train Your Dragon – Toothless), Outstanding Effects Animation in an Animated Feature Motion Picture (How to Train Your Dragon).

Recognition of exceptional work is an important part of the advancement of any professional field; it’s good to see that the field of computer graphics is so well-covered in this respect.

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A partial, early list of SIGGRAPH 2011 courses has recently been published. SIGGRAPH has published such preliminary lists in previous years, typically representing around half to a third of the final course list.

The list includes six very promising courses:

  1. Advances in Real-Time Rendering in Games: Part I – this is the next iteration in a course series, organized by Natalya Tatarchuk, that has been presented at SIGGRAPH every year (with new content) since 2006. This course has been a highlight of every SIGGRAPH it has appeared in and I’m pleased to see it coming back. The instructors are not yet listed, but Natasha has always been able to round up a top-notch speaker roster, and I am confident she will do so again this year. ”Advances…” has always been a full-day course, though since 2008 (when SIGGRAPH canceled the full-day course format) it’s been divided into two half-day courses. Only one of the two halves appears on this list; hopefully this is a simple oversight and SIGGRAPH didn’t reject the other half of the course!
  2. Character Rigging, Deformations, and Simulations in Film and Game Production – I’m always happy to see “X in film and games”-types courses. If well-organized and presented, such courses detail the current cutting-edge of actual production practice in both industries, emphasizing interesting differences and commonalities between the two. Such crossover content is an important feature of SIGGRAPH not found in industry-specific conferences like GDC. The topic is important; many games don’t put enough of an emphasis on animation quality. The speaker list is strong, including Tim McLaughlin (a graphics researcher at Texas A&M University who also has a nice body of film VFX work he did at ILM), Larry Cutler (a character technical director at Dreamworks Animation, formerly at Pixar), and David Coleman (a Senior CG Supervisor at Electronic Arts Canada, where he leads the EA Sports rigging team).
  3. Cinematography: The Visuals & the Story – I’m very happy to see this course on the list. I have become  increasingly fascinated with cinematography over the last few years; there is a lot that video games can learn from cinematography, from creative topics like lighting and composition to technical ones such as depth of field and tone mapping. This course is taught by Bruce Block, a film producer and visual consultant who wrote a very well-regarded and influential book called The Visual Story, about how visual structure is used to present story in film. I’m trying to get a course put together for next year which would cover the topic from a different angle, as presented by working film cinematographers; the two courses should make a nicely complementary pair.
  4. Destruction and Dynamics for Film and Game Production – Another “X in film and games” course on a key topic, organized by Erwin Coumans (AMD; formerly at SCEA R&D, Havok and Guerrilla Games). Erwin is the creator of the open-source Bullet Physics engine, which has been used in many films and games. Other speakers include Takahiro Harada (a GPU physics researcher at AMD, formerly Havok and the University of Tokyo), Nafees Bin Zafar (a senior production engineer at DreamWorks Animation who won an Academy Scientific & Engineering Award for his fluid simulation work at Digital Domain), Mark Carlson (an FX R&D programmer at DreamWorks Animation, formerly at Disney Animation), Brice Criswell (a senior software engineer at ILM), Michael Baker (no affiliation listed – I’m guessing it’s the Michael Baker who teaches at the Art Institute of Las Vegas and develops tools for the Dynamica Bullet Maya plugin), and Erin Catto (a principal software engineer at Blizzard who also developed the very widely used Box2D open source 2D physics engine).
  5. PhysBAM: Physically Based Simulation – Another physics course, but with a different emphasis. It focuses on the the PhysBAM simulation library developed at Stanford University and used by ILM, Disney Animation, and Pixar. Parts of PhysBAM are already open source – since the course webpage refers to “the soon-to-be-released simulation library PhysBAM”, presumably the rest will be available soon. The course is presented by Craig Schroeder (a PhD student at Stanford).
  6. Storytelling With Color – Anyone who saw my color course last year knows that I believe that getting the technical side of color right is important, for both film and games. But the reason it is important comes from the creative side – the way that a selection of colors can drive story or establish a mood. This course covers that topic, and should be of great interest to many game developers. It will be presented by Kathy Altieri (a production designer at DreamWorks Animation who worked on filmsm including The Prince of Egypt, Over the Hedge, and How to Train Your Dragon, and previously at Disney Animation on The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King).

If the rest of the content will be nearly as good as this preliminary set of courses appears to be, SIGGRAPH 2011 will be a conference to remember!

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The call for submissions for SIGGRAPH Asia 2011 has recently gone live. This fourth iteration of the SIGGRAPH Asia conference will take place in Hong Kong between December 12th and 15th. In previous years, the sketches and course programs have been of similar quality (if reduced quantity) compared to their North American counterparts. The SIGGRAPH Asia Technical Papers have been really good, better in my opinion than the relatively abstruse SIGGRAPH Technical Papers. If you want to see for yourself, the incomparable Ke-Sen Huang has your back, with paper link pages for SIGGRAPH Asia 2008, 2009 and 2010. Ke-Sen deserves an outstanding service award from ACM, instead of the more negative attentions he has received from them.

Here is the 2011 CFS text (a slightly more detailed version can be found here):

SIGGRAPH Asia 2011 sees the return of the Art Gallery and Emerging Technologies programs. Also calling for submissions are: Computer Animation Festival, Courses, Technical Papers, Technical Sketches & Posters.

Submit your research, theories, and innovations and you might be the next to have the valuable opportunity to present your work to audience-packed halls at SIGGRAPH Asia 2011 conference in Hong Kong this December.

For more information on SIGGRAPH Asia 2011, please visit www.siggraph.org/asia2011/.

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GDC has put a bit of a hiatus in my I3D posts; I better get them done soon so I can move onto the GDC posts.

This post describes a talk that David Luebke (Director of Research at NVIDIA) gave during the I3D banquet titled GPU Computing: Past, Present, and Future. Although the slides for the I3D talk are not available, parts of this talk appear to be similar to one David gave a few months ago, which does have video and slides available.

I’ll summarize the talk here; anyone interested in more detail can view the materials linked above.

The first part of the talk (which isn’t in the earlier version) covered the “New Moore’s Law”: computers no longer get faster, just wider; must re-think algorithms to be parallel. David showed examples of several scientists which got profound speedups – from days to minutes. He covered several different techniques, I’ll summarize the most notable four:

  1. A “photonic fence” that zaps mosquitoes with lasers, to reduce the incidence of malaria in third world countries. This application needs fast computer vision combined with low power consumption, which was achieved by using GPUs.
  2. A military vehicle which detects Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) using computer vision techniques. The speedup afforded by using GPUs enables the vehicle to drive much faster (an obvious advantage when surrounded by hostile insurgents) while still reliably detecting IEDs.
  3. A method for processing CT scans that enables much reduced radiation exposure for the patient. When running on CPUs, the algorithm was impractically slow; GPUs enabled it to run fast enough to be used in practice.
  4. A motion compensation technique that enables surgery on a beating heart. The video of the heart is motion-compensated to appear static to the surgeon, who operates through a surgical robot that translates the surgeon’s motions into the moving frame of the heart.

David started the next part of the talk (which is very similar to the earlier version linked above)  by going over the heritage of GPU computing. He did so by going over three separate historical threads: graphics hardware, supercomputing, and finally GPU Computing.

The “history of graphics hardware” section started with a brief mention of a different kind of hardware: Dürer‘s perspective machine. The history of electronic graphics hardware started with Ivan Sutherland’s SketchPad and continues through the development of the graphics pipeline by SGI: Geometry Engine (1982), RealityEngine (1993), and InfiniteReality (1997). In the early days, the graphics pipeline was an actual description of the physical hardware structure: each stage was a separate chip or board, with the data flow fixed by the routing of wires between them. Currently, the graphics pipeline is an abstraction; the stages are different threads running on a shared pool of cores, as seen in modern GPU designs such as the GeForce 8, GT200, and Fermi.

The second historical thread was the development of supercomputers. David covered the early development of three ways to build a parallel machine: SIMD (Goddard MPP, Maspar MP-1, Thinking Machines CM-1 and CM-2), hardware multithreading (Tera MTA) and symmetric multiprocessing (SGI Challenge, Sun Enterprise) before returning to Fermi as an example of a design that combines all three.

“GPU computing 1.0″ was the use (or abuse) of graphics pipelines and APIs to do general-purpose computing, culminating with BrookGPU. CUDA ushered in “GPU computing 2.0″ with an API designed for that purpose. The hardware supported branching and looping, and hid thread divergence from the programmer. David claimed that now GPU computing is in a “3.0″ stage, supported by a full ecosystem (multiple APIs, languages, algorithms, tools, IDEs, production lines, etc.). David estimated that there are about 100,000 active GPU compute developers in the world. Currently CUDA includes features such as “GPU Direct” (direct GPU-to-GPU transfer via a unified address space), full C++ support, and a template library.

The “future” part of the talk discussed the workloads that will drive future GPUs. Besides current graphics and high performance computing workloads, David believes a new type of workload, which he calls computational graphics, will be important. In some cases this will be the use of GPU compute to improve (via better performance or flexibility) algorithms typically performed using the graphics pipeline (image histogram analysis for HDR tone mapping, depth of field, bloom, texture-space diffusion for subsurface scattering, tessellation), and in others it will be to perform algorithms for which the graphics pipeline is not well-suited: ray tracing, stochastic rasterization, or dynamic object-space ambient occlusion.

David believes that the next stage of GPU computing (“4.0″) poses challenges to APIs (such as CUDA), to researchers, and to the education community. CUDA needs to be able to elegantly express programming models beyond simple parallelism, it needs to better express locality, and the development environment needs to improve and mature. Researchers need to foster new high-level libraries, languages, and platforms, as well as rethinking their algorithms. Finally, computer science curricula need to start teaching parallel computing in the first year.

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I’m back from a NYC trip (highlight: went to the taping of the Jimmy Fallon show and saw Snooki & Laurie Anderson – now there’s a combo; if only they had collaborated) and a San Francisco trip (highlights: the Autodesk Gallery – open to the public Wednesday afternoons - plus the amusingly-large and glowing heatsink on a motherboard at the NVIDIA GDC reception). So, it’s time to write down seven other cool things.

  • A convincing translucency effect was presented at GDC by the DICE guys (there’s precomputation involved, but it looks wonderful); Johan Andersson has a rundown of other DICE presentations. Other presentation lists include ones from NVIDIA and Intel, which I need to chew through sometime soon.
  • Vincent Scheib has a quick GDC report, and a presentation on HTML 5 and other browser technologies (e.g. WebGL), with a particular interest in the handheld market. Vincent mentions the Unreal GDC demo, which is pretty amazing.
  • Intel has a nice shadows demo, showing the various tradeoffs with cascaded and exponential variance shadow maps. It compiled out of the box for me, and there’s lots to try out. My only disappointment was that Lauritzen et al.’s clever shadow tricks are not demonstrated in it! Their basic ideas center around the idea of a prepass of the scene. They get tight bounds on the near and far view planes by finding the min and max depths, and tighten the shadow maps’ frustums around the visible points. Simple and clever, large improvements in shadow quality in real scenes, and relatively easy to implement or add to existing systems. (thanks to Mauricio Vives)
  • Feed43: This is a nice little idea. It tracks any web page you want, and you specify what is considered a change to the page. When a change is detected, you’re given an RSS ping. Best part is, you can share any RSS feed created with everyone. Examples: Ke-Sen Huang’s great conference paper list, and The Ray Tracing News. If you make a good feed, let me know and I’ll pass it on here. (thanks to Iliyan Georgiev)
  • This one’s old, but it’s a great page and I found it worthwhile, a discussion of gamma correction and text rendering. The surprising conclusion is that gamma alone doesn’t work nicely for text (it does wonders for line antialiasing, as I hope you know: compare uncorrected vs. corrected). It turns out that things like TrueType’s hinting has been tuned such that antialiasing and gamma correction can be detrimental.
  • An interesting tidbit from the government report “Designing a Digital Future“: on page 71 is an interesting section. A sample quote: “performance gains due to improvements in algorithms have vastly exceeded even the dramatic performance gains due to increased processor speed.” They give a numerical algorithms example where hardware gave a 1000x gain, algorithms gave a 43000x gain, 43 times as much. (thanks to Morgan McGuire)
  • My Minecraft addiction has died down a fair bit (“just one more project…”), but I was happy to see Notch make a blog post with some technical chew, with more posts to come. He talks about a problem many apps are starting to run into, how to deal with precision problems when the terrain space is large. His solution for now, “it’s a feature!”, which actually kinda makes sense for Minecraft. He also starts to describe his procedural terrain generation algorithm.

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Go get your reservation. Even if you think you have a 10% chance of going to SIGGRAPH 2011 this year, I recommend holding a room now. You can cancel the reservation later at no cost until July 21.

Me, I went with the Empire Landmark Hotel, as it was a good balance between price and distance (location also sounded good). The YWCA was very tempting, though – really, if you’re traveling alone (I’m with 2 others), it’s an incredible bargain ($99 a night) for a single person and has a noticeably higher rating than the Empire Landmark on TripAdvisor.

Oh, also, if you’re an interactive rendering type of person, don’t forget that HPG 2011 is colocated with SIGGRAPH 2011 and starts on August 5 (a Friday), so you might want to book from August 4th on. You can always carve off days from your reservation later. That said, choosing August 4th does trim down the available hotels a bit. For me, HPG is a must-attend; when it was colocated with SIGGRAPH in 2009 (it alternates between SIGGRAPH in North America and EGSR in Europe) I found it offered more relevant papers than all of SIGGRAPH itself.

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Books at GDC

I haven’t listed out new(ish) books for awhile, so here are a bunch. If you’re at GDC, you can take a look at most of them in the exhibitors hall. There’s also a high-quality volume free for download (or pay $81.38, if you prefer), so read on.

Three that are hot off the press:

GPU Pro 2, Wolfgang Engel ed., AK Peters - The next in the series (which continues the ShaderX series), and it looks like there’s a fair bit of chew in there. See the approximate table of contents here. Me, I’m particularly interested in the MLAA article; there’s a preview, moview, and more here.

GPU Computing Gems, Emerald Edition, Wen-Mei W. Hwu ed., Morgan Kaufmann – the GPGPU topics covered are all over the map, and unfortunately the two reviews on Amazon are not positive, but I’d like to page through it nonetheless and see what it’s like. Table of contents and sample chapters here.

Game Engine Gems 2, Eric Lengyel ed., AK Peters - More nuts and bolts and about game engines in general, take a look at the table of contents here.

There are also a few other graphics-related books that have come out in the past year that we haven’t mentioned here yet:

Game Physics Pearls, Gino van den Bergen and Dirk Gregorius ed., AK Peters – I’m not a user of game physics so can’t really judge this one, but thought it nice that the book has a progression to it: there’s an introductory chapter about the field, then practical articles about collision detection and simulation of various types of physical phenomena.

Polygon Mesh Processing, Mario Botsch, Leif Kobbelt, Mark Pauly, Pierre Alliez, Bruno Levy, AK Peters – This is a serious overview of research done on mesh-related algorithms, starting with data structures and covering such topics as smoothing, simplification, mesh repair, and deformations.

The rest are not directly related to interactive rendering, but are books I’ve wanted to page through. They’re all from Springer, who doesn’t appear to be exhibiting at GDC this year, so I guess they’re mostly be for sampling online:

Computer Vision, Richard Szeliski, Springer – Written by an expert in the field, I’ve heard this is a good guide to the subject. Super cool thing: the final draft of this book is free for download on his website. Much of Chapter 3 looks like a good read for interactive rendering programmers.

Mathematics for Computer Graphics, John Vince, Springer – I like to see such books, and have heard this one’s pretty good. It certainly starts out from the basics, though some topics covered seem unrelated (at least to me) to graphics.

Production Rendering, Ian Stephenson ed., Springer – definitely not interactive rendering, but it sounded like an interesting collection of articles from seven experts in the field. The last chapter in particular, “Rendering Gems”, looks pretty chewy. Perversely, Amazon’s “Look Inside” does not show you all of the Table of Contents, but Google’s excerpt does. Update: this turns out to be an old volume from 2004 I hadn’t noticed before (Springer books are usually too expensive for me, so I don’t tend to track them), one that Amazon mistakenly lists as having come out in November 2010 – see the comments below.

I’m betting I’ve missed other new books, so let us know by adding a comment.

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