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Q&A: SIGGRAPH 2014 conference chair Dave Shreiner

August 11, 2014
Q&A: SIGGRAPH 2014 conference chair Dave Shreiner
VANCOUVER — SIGGRAPH 2014 is finally here. Exhibitors and attendees are making their way to Vancouver, British Columbia, to begin a new chapter celebrating the advancements in computer graphics technologies. Before the hustle and bustle begins, Karen Moltenbrey, chief editor of Computer Graphics World, talked with Dave Shreiner from ARM, this year’s conference chair. 

Shreiner is a longtime SIGGRAPH attendee/presenter/supporter/volunteer. This marks his 26th consecutive conference and counts at least that many presentations he has done there. He was on the bleeding edge of OpenGL and continues on that track today with mobile technology.    

Tell us about yourself from a personal level.
I grew up in a technology-isolated backwater in central Pennsylvania, where computers weren’t particularly available. I became interested in computer graphics as a wee lad when I encountered a 2D-vector motorcycle jumping game. I stunk at it (for the $3 my folks had the patience of watching me waste), but it made me proclaim I was going to make these games when I was older. To date, I still haven’t done that, but I hopefully still have some time.

According to my educational transcripts, I was a mediocre student who probably shouldn’t write long sentences (or essays like this) or work with numbers with more than two decimal places, even though I graduated college with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. I didn’t study computer science because I knew I would sit behind a computer and hoped I could pick up what I needed to know along the way. I usually didn’t do my homework. Instead, I fiddled with computers, drawing graphs of equations.  Turns out there are people who need that done, and I was fortunate to have a friend who knew someone who needed that type of help. After getting the job, I sat in a closet in one of the school’s chemistry labs, drawing molecules on a Silicon Graphics (SGI) 4D 210 GTX workstation, and my life was forever transformed. Not only because I was doing cool computer graphics, but also because it was the first time I went to SIGGRAPH.

After I left school for good, I got a job in a bomb factory in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, doing flight simulation on – you guessed it – another SGI machine. Next, I moved west to Silicon Valley to work for Silicon Graphics making those amazing (at the time) machines. I also went to SIGGRAPH again. And again. And again.

I met my then-to-be wife at SGI (she worked there, too), and took her to SIGGRAPH. I got involved in some cool technology: a computer graphics library named OpenGL, and wrote a course about it. Then I helped present a course at SIGGRAPH on OpenGL. Then I helped write a book about OpenGL, and kept talking about OpenGL and graphics at SIGGRAPH. I kept presenting courses, and then helped organize them at SIGGRAPH.

I know, dear reader, you’re seeing a pattern here. There’s been a lot of SIGGRAPH in my life, and I think that’s just awesome.

The last few years, I’ve been working on graphics systems for mobile devices, and going to SIGGRAPH, and I thought it’d be cool to combine those two things, so I volunteered to chair the 2014 SIGGRAPH conference to see if I might achieve that somehow. My wife attends the show as well, and I’m still presenting courses there, too. 

But enough about me …

What do you bring to SIGGRAPH in terms of your professional experience?
SIGGRAPH 2014 will be my 26th consecutive SIGGRAPH conference (which doesn’t include attending SIGGRAPH Asia), and will mark my 26 th and 27 th presentation at the conference.  I’ve also been volunteering for SIGGRAPH for the last 12 years in a multitude of roles, including organizing programs at the conference and supporting the SIGGRAPH organization.

I’ve also been a practitioner, engineer, and educator in the field of computer graphics for a few years more than my SIGGRAPH attendance. I’ve co-authored four books on subjects relating to computer graphics, and helped evolve the technology used to create computer-generated images.

I also bring some business knowledge about project planning, marketing, communications, and finance, which has proved invaluable in being the conference chair.

Most importantly was being able to convince a number of talented friends and colleagues to volunteer their precious time to make this year’s SIGGRAPH conference one for the record books. They’re a fantastic committee, and you’ll easily see how talented they are.

What made you take on the position of chair?
SIGGRAPH has been a great help to my career and personal success, and being conference chair is kind of my ultimate way of giving back to the community. While I’ve presented numerous times at the conference and worked on previous conference committees, doing it at this level is an unparalleled honor!

Additionally, it provided a somewhat unexpected career growth opportunity. I was curious about motivating and leading a team, and this is one of the best environments to do it in. The caliber of volunteers is beyond measure, and they’re all super nice people.  So it’s a great place to work on building leadership skills, as well.

What other SIGGRAPH positions have you held?
When I first started volunteering for SIGGRAPH about 12 years ago, I was web master for the organizational website. After a few years presenting courses, I was invited to review courses, which led to being on the Courses committee, including chairing the Courses committee in 2006 and again in 2009.  

What can attendees expect this year at the conference?
This year has a large focus on technology, particularly in using the latest devices and techniques to personalize experiences, from new techniques on mobile devices to creating physical manifestations of their virtual objects using 3D printing and drones. We also showcase the leading research in all the disciplines that compose our community (we had record numbers of technical and art papers this year), provide proactive panels, and a world-class set of educational courses.

This year’s conference committee also recognized how the computer graphics industry is changing, and will have several events focused on independent practitioners – from gamers to app developers to those working on augmented and virtual reality. I will discuss this later.

What is this year's theme?
Why have just one?  There were a number of directions that I had hoped to incorporate into SIGGRAPH 2014, as well as letting the passions and creativity of my team lead them, as well. With that scenario, we’re emphasizing a lot of interesting elements…

One is a focus on mobile graphics (one of my professional interests). I consider mobile phones and tablets the latest generation of devices for producing computer graphics.  However, with their cameras, hi-res display, GPUs, multiple CPUs, GPS and other sensors, they’re some of the most advanced, integrated computing systems in history, and they’re enabling all sorts of interesting applications, such as augmented reality, social gaming, and computational photography. We’re challenging our community to show us how to use these devices in new and interesting ways.

We’re also emphasizing gaming and real-time graphics, particularly as the practitioners of those fields are producing works that rival blockbuster movies. That’s an exciting growth area, and a natural fit for SIGGRAPH.

And another focus that I am also excited about is the physical creation of these virtual 3D objects we’ve all been enjoying over the last decades. With 3D printing becoming almost a commodity, we’ll be providing solutions for attendees to do everything to design and manufacture their 3D creations using the latest in 3D manufacturing technology.

How does the theme resonate with you on a personal level?
I’m an engineer and technologist by trade, and seeing what creative individuals can do with the modern technology we have is very exciting to me personally. As I mentioned, phones and tablets put very capable graphics systems in the hands of an ever-growing population. Computer graphics and interactive experiences — the fundamental tenets of SIGGRAPH — are now more accessible than ever before, and people are enjoying our media more than ever.  The work of our community is improving the lives of ever more people, and that’s a noble and exciting venture.

How has SIGGRAPH influenced you personally and professionally?
SIGGRAPH is the rocket that pretty much launched my career. It’s a bit of a long story, but I think it really demonstrates the value of SIGGRAPH.

I knew that I was going to be a computer jockey around my freshman year in high school, but I wasn’t sure how or what precisely I was going to do. I bumbled around high school and college playing with computers and doing math, but without a whole lot of direction.  Near the end of my college experience, I was lucky enough to have a colleague suggest that I should go to this conference called SIGGRAPH. Sounded cool, but I really had no idea what to expect. That was 1989 — my first conference — and even though I could only afford to go to the exhibition, it totally hooked me. I saw what smart, creative people were doing with graphics workstations (at the time), and it provided the clear picture of what I wanted to do. It also showed me how little I knew about the field, and what I really needed to know to succeed. I went home with a pile of books and a lot of enthusiasm.

I registered as ‘full conference’ the next year, and took in everything I could. It was well worth the investment. I was in total awe of the speakers and talents of everyone there and the images they were making. I also thought that I could never be one of those folks contributing to the content of the show. But I kept coming, learning, and making new friends who were happy to share and increase my knowledge.

I kept going to the conference, and after about 10 of them, I got to do my first course presentation. I was fortunate to discuss a topic, OpenGL, which was important to a number of conference attendees, and it was at that point I realized what SIGGRAPH had done for me, but also what I could do for others. I’ve always been kind of an overzealous Boy Scout, and this was just killer: helping others develop their skills while talking about something I loved.

SIGGRAPH 2014 will be my 26th consecutive conference and my 17 th year of presenting at the conference, where I’m once again presenting a course, as well as talking on a panel. It never gets old.

Without SIGGRAPH, I’d probably still be sitting in a cornfield in Pennsylvania, probably working on bar-code scanners (the first computer job I ever interviewed for), and not helping delight minds and eyeballs all around the world.

What are you looking forward to most at the show?
On a personal level, I’m excited to take my parents to SIGGRAPH. My wife (a 20-plus year attendee) and I have waxed lyrical about the show, but my folks have never experienced it.  I’m looking forward to them being totally blown away, but also sharing with them an important part of my life, and seeing how much enjoyment I get from SIGGRAPH.

Specific to SIGGRAPH 2014 … there’s so much. I want to see what my committee has brought to the show. They’re a super motivated bunch, and they keep mentioning all this awesome stuff, which should make this a non-stop experience for the five days of the conference. Also, we’re doing a number of new things this year, and it’s going to be very interesting to see what the community does with them. Will they like the new activities?  Was there value for the attendee? It’s suspenseful, and I dig that.

Anything special we can expect from the conference this year since it is in Vancouver?
Absolutely! First, it’s in Vancouver, one of the most beautiful places I’ve been (and I’ve been a lot of places!). The city is the perfect fit for SIGGRAPH and me – the combination of technology, nature, art, and beauty.

We’re also doing a number of special events that are a little outside of the normal SIGGRAPH venues. We have special screenings of blockbuster movies, a behind-the-scenes look at how game art is developed, demo reels running during Daytime Selects, an AR/VR contest, a mobile pavilion, an independent developers area in the exhibition, an awards presentation for the Computer Animation Festival winners, and a cocktail party for independent app developers to show their work, to name a few. There are also a few other surprises, but also all the magic that makes SIGGRAPH special. You just have to be there.

Back to Vancouver so soon?
Sure. I’d personally love to see SIGGRAPH in Vancouver many more times. The city is incredibly supportive of having us there – the mayor even came to personally welcome and thank us for coming at one of our recent planning meetings. Vancouver’s also a vibrant and growing technology hub, which we’re hoping will provide lots of opportunities (whether for education, employment, or enjoyment) for our attendees.

How has the conference managed to stay relevant given the overall trend toward smaller and more targeted trade shows?
When you get your conference chair secret-decoder ring, you learn that we describe SIGGRAPH as a 13-ring circus. There’s something for everyone, but as your question alludes to, all that wonderfulness can make it difficult for folks to see what’s personally relevant to them.

I think SIGGRAPH is about fusion: combining technology, art, science, and magic to create incredible experiences – not just pictures. Whether that experience is watching an incredible scene from a movie, helping a medical professional provide better care using better technology, or perhaps making a complex subject easier to understand through a more interactive learning experience, SIGGRAPH is the place where practitioners of those independent disciplines converge. It’s all about learning, sharing, and being inspired to explore and do something new.

Many things in our modern lives are segmented into small portions with a narrow focus.  You watch a video online, read an academic article, play a game, see your friend’s status on social media – in an ever-more connected world, we tend to do much more by ourselves. SIGGRAPH brings thousands of practitioners from numerous fields together to exchange ideas, demonstrate the future, learn, and make new friends. You can’t do that anywhere else at this scale. There is no substitute, and that’s what makes SIGGRAPH special.

What are the exhibition numbers looking like right now?
We are expecting 150 exhibitors to reserve over 40,000 square feet of exhibit space, so there will be plenty to see in the Exhibition. Moreover, we’ve almost sold out the Exhibition [at the time of this interview] and have more new exhibitors and international exhibitors than we were expecting. Some old friends returned this year after an absence from our Exhibition last year. The Exhibition continues to be one of the top reasons our attendees come to SIGGRAPH, as they tell us it is the best place to meet, find new products, communicate about career opportunities, and develop relationships with vendors in the industry.

How has your background and interests affect this year's show? (Every chair's influence is felt to some degree on the overall show.)
As I previously mentioned, we’re in a renaissance in making computer graphics accessible through mobile devices. The fact that you can have an HD-resolution display 18 inches from your nose backed by a high-powered computer opens a world of opportunity.

The SIGGRAPH conference has oscillated its primary focus over the years. Early in my attendance, it was all about hardware and systems, and over the years has migrated more towards amazing images and how to produce them. I believe the quiet revolution that is making computer graphics ubiquitous should be combined with our expert knowledge of creating compelling images to make new experiences. The industry for computer graphics and interactive techniques is changing — from large corporations to individual developers — and I really want to enable that at this show. Wish me luck!

What mark do you hope to leave on SIGGRAPH 2014?
The same as any conference chair – help create an experience that rewards our attendees for coming. I’m honored to have been given the responsibility to oversee the show, but what’s really important is that all the members of our great community enjoy, learn, and celebrate what we all love.