Siggraph 2016: Virtual Reality, GPUs and New 3D Software

Saturday, August 27, 2016

If you want to see the future of sci-fi and fantasy entertainment, you go to Comic-Con in San Diego. But if you want to preview the tools that enable the wild visual effects in those movies and TV shows, you go to Siggraph, the annual conference and exhibition on computer graphics and "interactive techniques." Developers of 3D graphics software often use Siggraph to announce new products, and this year's event, held July 24 to 28 in Anaheim, Calif., was no exception, as Autodesk and Maxon demonstrated major upgrades to Maya and Cinema 4D respectively. The conference is also a showcase for applications in digital art, scientific visualization, and — this year in particular — virtual reality. Here's a look at some of the highlights.

3D Software

Autodesk's Maya is one of the top 3D graphics packages for video professionals. New features in Maya 2017 are too numerous to list here; you can get a quick overview in this YouTube video and a more comprehensive guide on the Autodesk website. One big change is that Autodesk has switched rendering engines — the software that transforms wireframe models into realistic scenes. Previously, Maya was bundled with Nvidia's Mental Ray, but now it's using the Arnold renderer from Solid Angle, a company that Autodesk acquired earlier this year. Many 3D artists consider Arnold to be a higher-quality renderer.

An interesting side note: Autodesk has joined Adobe Systems in moving to a subscription-only model for most of its software. But Maya isn't cheap: You can pay $185 per month or $1470 per year.

Maxon Cinema 4D

New from Maxon is Cinema 4D Release 18, which provides a suite of modeling, animation and rendering tools. Again, you should check out the Maxon website for a comprehensive look at the new features. They include interactive knife tools for modeling; iridescent surface effects; and a Voronoi Fracture generator, which lets you shatter objects in various ways.

The software is scheduled to ship in September. It's available in four configurations, ranging from the entry-level Prime version ($995) to the all-inclusive Cinema 4D Studio ($3695). The company also offers annual subscriptions ranging from $250 to $650.

Virtual Reality

Siggraph's "VR Village" was an area on the show floor that allowed attendees to enter immersive environments and test new VR technologies. These included the "Synesthesia Suit," which provides full-body tactile feedback.

Fove headset

One emerging VR technology is eye-tracking: The ability of a VR system to detect movement of the eyes in addition to the head and hands. The pioneer in this category is Fove Inc., which has raised $480,650 in Kickstarter funding for an eye-tracking VR headset launched in prototype form last year. At this year's Siggraph, the company showed a new industrial design that reduces the size and weight of the headset.

SensoMotoric Instruments (SMI) announced a developer kit that adds eye-tracking features to the HTC Vive. It joins the company's previous developer kits for the Oculus Rift and Samsung's Gear VR.

Fove Eye Contact

Why is eye-tracking a big deal? One benefit is that interactive environments can react when you make eye contact with specific elements. It also enables foveated rendering, a technique for improving imaging performance. The fovea is the center of the retina, and foveated rendering shows the greatest detail in areas of a scene where your eyes are focused. Areas on the periphery have less detail, which reduces the rendering load.

New GPUs

High-end computer graphics applications require powerful GPUs (graphics-processing units). For example, the makers of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive both advise game developers to render VR content at 90 frames per second, and a GPU that can push all those pixels will set you back at least $300. Professional users need even more power. This is one factor spurring Nvidia and AMD to introduce beefier graphics cards.

Quadro P6000

New from Nvidia is the Quadro P6000, which the company says is up to 80 percent faster than its current top-of-the-line Quadro M6000. To put that in perspective, the M6000 — which sells for about $4000 — can drive up to four 4K displays.

The P6000 model is based on the company's new Pascal architecture, which is designed to accelerate hardware-intensive applications such as neural networks and artificial intelligence. No word yet on pricing or ship date. The company also previewed a Pascal-based GPU for laptops.

Mini-Eye-4

In addition to the new hardware, Nvidia announced a software development kit (SDK) for VR-capture systems that stream 360-degree video. These systems use multiple cameras, and the SDK makes it easier for developers to take advantage of Nvidia GPUs when stitching the video feeds into 360-degree panoramas. At Siggraph, the company demonstrated the SDK using the Mini Eye 3 camera system from 360 Designs.

Nvidia also demonstrated Project Wetbrush, a real-time 3D oil painting simulator developed by researchers at Adobe. It's designed to realistically replicate oil painting, including the actions of individual bristles as well as paint viscosity and thickness.

AMD previewed Radeon Pro SSG, a forthcoming GPU boasting 1TB of solid-state memory. The company says the GPU can process 8K video at 90 frames per second.

Closer to market is the Radeon Pro WX series, a trio of graphics cards for content creators and engineers. The Radeon Pro WX 7100, aimed at VR applications, will sell for less than $1000, AMD says. They're slated to ship in the fourth quarter.

Face2Face

Siggraph is a multi-faceted event that includes technical presentations, a computer animation festival and a curated "Emerging Technologies" gallery in addition to the exhibition area. Here's a way-cool project that took "Best of Show" among the Emerging Technologies.

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