Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Siggraph 2009

How did changing department affect me in the short time?
I had started on a Monday. On that Tuesday I was told I really should go to this year's Siggraph. On Friday I was supposed to go to Vegas (see previous posts). And on the next Monday Siggraph was already on!

Since I had already paid and committed to go to Vegas, I decided to find some flight from there to New Orleans, where the conference took place this year. I took a red eye on Sunday night and slept a few hours on the plane and at the airport. I arrived to the conference just on time for the Siggraph 2009 awards. It was important that I could make it there on time because two out of three prizes were awarded to my coworkers: Rob Cook and Michael Kass.

If you work in my industry, Rob really needs no introduction. Among his great achievements, he was the co-architect and primary author of Renderman. He is also Director at Large for ACM. Michael is also a very remarkable man. I got to know him a little better during the conference and at the parties that took place in those evenings. His award shows again how some individuals can excel in completely diverse skills. Other than being an eminent research figure, he is a world-class ice dancer and a juggler. As a side note, Michael is also working on my same project at Pixar.
I was thrilled to see the talks that would take place after the awards. In their acceptance speech, both Rob and Michael faced head-on the apparent crisis that Siggraph is going through. Less and less people showing up year by year, and some say less interesting publications too. The main issue is: has almost everything been discovered already? are all the new discoveries going to be just slight improvements on the established techniques? 

The points that were brought up were very relevant. Perhaps also because of Pixar's achievements, Siggraph conference in its history has deviated from its original scope, computer graphics and interactive techniques, to just computer graphics. According to Rob Cook, Siggraph crisis is an identity crisis. He quoted how physics were thought to be almost entirely discovered at the end of the 1800s, before the theory of relativity, quantum physics and other very major discoveries. He finally listed a number of unexplored problems that may and will keep researchers busy for the next three decades at least. 

Michael focused on what the attitude of the panels that select the papers to be published could/should be. There is a delicate and sometimes arbitrary balance, between being strict to avoid watering down the quality of publications, and being relaxed to catch original approaches and not restrict the field Siggraph spans, otherwise missing out on the next great discoveries. Not an easy task.
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