Siggraph 98

Siggraph 98

Walk Talk Bits and Blocks:

This is an urgent message to the staff of Ink Nineteen. Your wonderful mute translator has somehow managed to get me stuck in Chicago. Where is the mercy? Where is the forgiveness? Most importantly, where are they building this new DisneyQuest facility? For heaven’s sake, send me some money. I can’t take it here anymore!

It was a wonderful day in July. I was to meet my appointed translator at three. Unfortunately I was detained an hour and didn’t reach his doorstep until 4:30. It was a high-speed sixty-mile race to Orlando, and I should have known it was going to go sour as we screamed through a toll both and it didn’t register the payment.

“What time does press check in end?” asked my translator/driver.

“Five thirty. I think.”

“I’ll drive faster.”

“Let me look it up.”

I fumbled through the mounds of press releases, forms, and maps I’d received, desperately hoping that we had an extra half hour. “Oh sorry. We have until six, but don’t slow down. There is a cocktail party to welcome the press at five-thirty and I refuse to miss it.” My translator didn’t seem to agree on the urgency of the situation but he kept on going. We made it in time to check in but I lost my invite for cocktails. No real loss as we were scheduled for a press tour at DisneyQuest for eight-thirty. At that hour, they have to provide something. So we made do, wandering around and eventually found our way into one of the animation theaters. Sick, twisted, and packed to the gills with humor. I was treated to carrots buying porn videos involving a grater. The audience was filled with laughter as I crawled across the floor, clutching my sides.

When my fit of hysteria passed we traveled over to Downtown Disney in hopes of grabbing a bite to eat, to calm my already heavily-caffeinated and rotting stomach.

“What do you mean I’m not on the list? I told them to register my associate here after I was registered! No, I’m sorry this just will not do.”

“I’m sorry for the confusion sir. Let me write down your name and I can assure you we will get you in,” replied a casual SGI grunt. They really need to start teaching social skills to computer science majors, or at least let them out of a lab once a month.

When the time came, nothing could have prepared me for the best entertainment complex in the world. Five levels packed with interactive adventures, full motion simulators, and every video game I’ve ever wanted to play again. DisneyQuest is a joint venture between Disney and Silicon Graphics, and the power! Oh, if I could have taken it all home with me! All the interactive real-time adventures were run off an Onyx2 system ($55,000) made by SGI specifically for the processing power. Cost to play ranges from thirty to forty-five dollars depending on how many virtual tokens you need (everything is tracked via bar-coded credit cards). They are opening another one late in 1999 on an entire city block in Chicago. I couldn’t help but think of the applications across the board with this sort of power. When we returned the following morning, after 4 hours of sleep each, I was exposed to its true ramifications.

“Do you mind driving and asking all the questions today?” wheezed my translator. “I’m feeling rather ill today and I’m losing my voice.” The worst greeting words I’ve ever had in the morning.. I don’t know the tech talk mumbo-jumbo. I can jump around on the surface but don’t even ask me to start talking about programming logic or hardware/software specs. Java. Java anyone? Cream and sugar, thank you.

I had a lot, and it was all free. However I’m speaking of the programming language and not the substance. Armed with an Onyx2, one intelligent fellow combined a virtual 3D environment with remote sensors inside a children’s stuffed chicken. You could move the animal’s wings and it flapped around. Feeling a little cuddly? Rub its tummy and the on-screen computer version turned around and smiled at you. The interface between the real and the computed was a little Java code, something anyone can write at home. Too bad this isn’t on the market, because a little educational programming and your children aren’t going to stop learning. But then there was Lego.

Later in the day I dumped my mute translator at the Lego booth to play with their new robotics line, while I milled around the floor watching all sorts of demonstrations on the ease and flexibility of creating computer images in music videos. It was easy really. He was a total sucker from the beginning asking anyone holding a Lego bag, “Wow. Lego’s here? Where’s Lego?” Lego, combined with an Onyx2 system (yet again) were able to create Interactive Legos. Simply build and use their special video camera and you could move around what you created and see Lego come to life. Now why couldn’t I have had Lego like that when I was a kid.

“The only reason I stopped playing with Legos is my mom took them away.” It was my translator talking with another fanatic. Time to ditch this pack of kids turned nerds turned kids again. I wandered around the Touchware galleries playing with all sorts of things: from surface maps of the earth where one could move around and feel the temperature in the area, to projected moths that when touched began to fly and move under your hand, to more 3D environments that combined typical gaming with native African art and music. Little did I know, the icing was about to unfold in the Electronic Theater. Of course I stocked up on more free coffee before this one. I was undercover thanks to my now-completely-mute translator. Computer geeks drink coffee non-stop and hike their pants to their armpits. Well when in Rome…

They play pong by the thousands together in a theater. Even my old and wretched self got a chuckle out of using a two-sided reflective paddle, aimed at sensors in front of the theater, to move a fence and protect our cats from a lunatic dog. We played a few other games after that based on the paddle principle, and as we grew restless they started the program, a two-hour collection of shorts, commercials and renderings that showcase the best the computer graphics industry offers. Three stood out above the crowd: “Gerry’s Game,” “Bug,” and “Bingo.” “Bug” had a very strong political/social stance on the Tienaman Square catastrophe. Excellently crafted and well-executed, the message was clear that they will be back stronger than ever. “Gerry’s Game” won Pixar an Oscar for the best animated short, but Bingo armed a nuclear warhead and leveled the playing field. Its twisted story, rendered humans, and general debaucherous ideas left a serious impression of how far we have come with computer animation. I’m still searching for a way to get a VHS copy of this masterpiece, but it’s awful hard when you are living out of a shipping crate in Chicago.

When the presentation was over, I dumped the mute at Lego and ran to the Alias/Wavefront booth to watch the making of Bingo. Surprisingly enough once the structure is set up, the front end is so amazingly slick that a child could make their parents into demons with the flip of a switch. As we left, I couldn’t help but hit the SGI booth up for an Onyx2 machine to take home for review.

“I’m sorry, but we don’t do that,” replied a laughing attendant.

“Oh well, I guess I’m just have to box myself up and go home with the machines.” The attendant smiled. The last thing I remembered was being struck in the back of the head. I think it was the mute inflicting his revenge for an early departure from Lego. Next I thing I knew it was hot, muggy, dark, and I felt very cramped. I was in a box! I broke out to discover downtown Chicago around me and a note staple to my chest: Ink 19 says you are a total embarrassment to journalism. You are to follow the developments of the new DisneyQuest and report back when it’s complete.

Come to think of it, this isn’t too bad after all. They have to deliver the SGI machines sometime, right?

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