"They're Cutting Corners in 2003"

~ or ~

A Long, Hard Look At
the Future of the SIGGRAPH Conference

by Alan B. Scrivener, Chair
San Diego Professional Chapter ACM SIGGRAPH

Greetings, fellow SIGGRAPHers. This year marked my 14th SIGGRAPH conference, over a period of 20 years. To earn the Media Pass which was bestowed upon me I am writing this article. But there are already numerous articles out there offering detailed looks at this years's conference from a number of perspectives. Here is a random sample:

So I thought I would focus instead on a long-range view of the conference and its place in the tech world. As a chapter leader I was an invited attendee at the Chapters Leadership Workshop on the Saturday before SIGGRAPH, 25 July 2003. The one question we were asked repeatedly to ponder and discuss was "What is the future of SIGGRAPH?" Clearly this question has been on a lot of people's minds.

This year was the first time the SIGGRAPH conference has been held in San Diego, and early in the planning -- back in late 2001 -- the San Diego chapter was invited to participate in the process. We kicked around a number of ideas with Alyn Rockwood and his staff, and ended up with the San Diego Professional Chapter producing the 2003 SIGKIDS event (more on that later).

One of the ideas that didn't make the cut was a video production based on a retelling of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, called A SIGGRAPH Carol, hoping to educate and inspire all the Scrooges out there into adopting the "Spirit of SIGGRAPH," in a search for beauty and truth combined with boosterism, volunteerism and community outreach.

I'm borrowing that pretext now for this article. Come with me, Ebineezer, this is your old partner Marley, the three spirits will be taking you to see SIGGRAPHs present, past and future.

The Spirit of SIGGRAPH Present

It's hard to say when a SIGGRAPH conference begins. SIGGRAPH 2003 began for me when I found out -- when? 2000? -- that San Diego would host it. Our chapter started our own planning and brainstorming then.

San Diego Convention Center

In winter of 2002 I was "drafted" into producing SIGKIDS. A lot started happening after that: we started having monthly SIGKIDS meetings with on-site child care to be family-friendly. Many of them were held at the new Immersive Visualization Lab. at San Diego State University (CSL-120, www.edcenter.sdsu.edu/news/news_2002.html), which helped our campus and community outreach.

Often it seems like a SIGGRAPH begins the previous your with the "next year's" booth giving away posters and pins. At San Antonio 2002 I ran into Mike from Scripps amid rumors of that years's conference losing money due to low attendance, and the 2004 conference moving from ATlanta to Los Angeles to be closer to show-biz customers. He pointed to his 2003 pin (see title above) with its classic punch card design, and said "They're Cutting Corners in 2003."

SIGKIDS work the increasingly intense through 2003, until by the 4th of July I decided to take a month off (from my projects that actually make me money) to spend full-time on it until the conference.

In June of 2003 I did some volunteer work for the Air & Waste Management Association Conference (http://www.awma.org/) held at the San Diego Convention Center, the same venue where SIGGRAPH would be. I got to experience the parking, meal and transportation problems ahead of time.

San Diego Convention Center

I got to experience it on a much larger scale a few weeks later when I and my chapter plus some other kind volunteers staffed a table for four days at ComicCon, the huge comic book convention (http://www.comic-con.org/). We used a screen and projector to show some 2003 animations off DVD, and handed out literature for the San Diego chapter, SIGRAPH 2003, and SIGKIDS 2003. It was fun but exhausting. Afterwards I saw two teenagers at the trolley stop; one was holding a cigarette. The other asked, "You need a light?" His friend answered, "No, I've got a lighter. I'm just too tired to smoke." Even though I don't smoke myself, I knew what he meant.

San Diego SIGGRAPH table at ComicCon 2003, San Diego Convention Center

Soon afterwards I sent out the following email to my fellow chapter leaders coming to the workshop:

On Friday night before the SIGGRAPH week there was an informal chapter leaders dinner at Joe's Crab Shack, where I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Joshua Strickon of Apple, the Emerging Technologies chair, about his experiences putting his part together with limited time and budget. The next day was the chapter leaders' workshop. On the way I passed a woman sitting on the sidewalk muttering to herself about the "dot cons."

San Diego Convention Center

Finally, SIGGRAPH "began" on Sunday 26 July 2003. I spent a good part of the day moving tables, cables, and a large art installation made of 16 DOS systems and plywood, into the SIGKIDS venue, the Computer Museum of America in downtown San Diego (www.computer-museum.org). I also attended a meeting, picked up badges for my volunteers and distributed some of them, and solved last-minute problems. I didn't make it to the Art Party in Balboa Park or sake barrel ceremony.

Computer Museum of San Diego

Monday was SIGKIDS set-up, so I didn't make it to the class on programming graphics for dome displays. But watching this magic space being created in the basement of the museum was mind-blowing.

Tangible Playroom team at work

That night we had our SIGKIDS 2003 awards banquet, and afterwards I was planning on going to the Professional Chapters Party which sounded like a blast, but I was too wiped out.

the author at SIGKIDS 2003

Tuesday morning SIGKIDS opened for its 3-day run. Each day I left for two to four hours to check out the rest of SIGGRAPH, but mostly stayed at SIGKIDS to make sure things went well.

Bob-o-Vision installation, SIGKIDS 2003

Floated Through My Mind installation, SIGKIDS 2003

Rakugaki installation, SIGKIDS 2003

when I did foray over to the Convention Center from the Computer Museum, I saw the standard stuff. I spent a good teal of time in Emerging Technologies, making sure I understood each display before going on to the next.

Emerging Technologies, SIGGRAPH 2003

Later, talking to my friend Bob, he told me about an exhibit in Emerging Technologies that I'd completely missed. It was "The Augmented Composer Project: The Music Table" (www.siggraph.org/s2003/conference/etech/augmented.html). So much for seeing and understanding everything! I just walked right by this one unknowingly. Sensory overload is difficult to manage sometimes.

I also really enjoyed all the whimsical stuff under the sail.

under the sail, SIGGRAPH 2003

And of course I spent some time on the exhibits floor. If I hadn't been at ComicCon in the same facility a week earlier, I might not have noticed that SIGGRAPH used less than half the newly-elongated (mile long) exhibit hall, while ComicCon filled it.

There was certainly a list of things I'd wished I been able to make to this year (like every year). Some of the things I was sorry I couldn't squeeze in were the excellent-sounding short presentations in the Educator's Program, the Graphics Pioneers dinner, and the Wearable Computers Fashion Show, as well as a a number of technical sessions. I realized that the people who put on the conference are not the people who attend the conference. The volunteers who make SIGGRAPH happen seldom get to enjoy its riches much, and go home exhausted. Michael Wright the Art Show Chair, told me he slept for a week afterwards.

But I did get to talk to a lot of people who came through SIGKIDS, and I asked many of them what they'd seen at the show that was new and/or exciting. People kept telling me that it was more of the same from previous years. "Stuff is cheaper," I heard more than once, "but nothing's new."

Yet a few things were new. I saw a system for using the human body's own electric fields for a local area network in Emerging Technologies. It was called ElectAura-Net (www.siggraph.org/s2003/conference/etech/electaura.html). I also saw a "free ice cream" truck on 5th Ave. leading to the convention with young women handing out demo CDs of a new program with each ice cream bar. That was a new one.

free FireGL software and ice cream from ATI

But it got me wondering: if the big studios are laying off animators, and Disney dropped most animator salaries by one third last year, are we really doing a good thing by encouraging more and more people to learn these skills and enter this field?

So, after my week of sleep, I began to think some more about the future of SIGGRAPH.

The Spirit of SIGGRAPH Past

One of my all time favorite SIGGRAPH conferences was in Anaheim, CA in 1993. It was the year SGI had a giant Jurassic Park theme park ride in their 4-times-the-biggest-size booth. But only a tiny fraction of the vendors dealt with F/X. In many ways it was the last of the "old style" SIGGRAPHs, dominated by scientific visualization and graphics researchers. The funny thing is that lately it seems like every time I see somebody doing something praised as "innovative" in graphics, it's based on a paper given at SIGGRAPH 1993. For example, when I attended the course at SIGGRAPH 2001 on "Shrek": The Story Behind the Screen (http://www.siggraph.org/s2001/conference/courses/crs19.html), they said the skin rendering used algorithms from a 1993 SIGGRAPH paper. Fractal data compression, Artificial Life (AL), Virtual Worlds -- all were fresh, new ideas in 1993. I thought about this when the 2003 Electronic Theater began with a retrospective of the 1993 Electronic Theater.

Most years have an experience, demo, prototype or artwork that blows my mind. For example, here is a description I've lifted from the 2003 SIGKIDS proposal:

I worked very hard on SIGKIDS and appreciate the work of the conference committee and their staff, and I don't mean this as a criticism of them; I know they are dependent on what is submitted to the conference, and that in turn depends on the research and economic climates, and what innovation there is to be found, but I have to say that the conference is losing its edge. I have one friend who says he's found some of the same old excitement -- and even some of the same people from "old SIGGRAPH" -- at the Burning Man Festival (www.burningman.com/). Others have said the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) Show (www.e3expo.com/) is where all the newest 3D stuff is. These trends all worry me, as do the tales I'd heard of large losses (in some years) and declining attendance and exhibitors. 2003 was the first year SGI didn't even have a booth.

So I decided to at least get my facts straight. Alyn Rockwood and Jen Anderson were kind enough to provide me with some preliminary figures for 2003 and archival data for other years, which I combined with data from previous ACM SIGGRAPH reports and press releases to create the following table:

Year Place Attendees Sq. ft. exhibs. Profit/loss (US dollars) Industry (milllions of US dollars)
1974 Boulder, CO 600 0 540
1975 Bowling Green, Ohio 300 0 830
1976 Philadelphia, PA 300 1,000 1,100
1977 San Jose, CA 750 10,000 1,500
1978 Atlanta, GA 1,500 12,000 2,000
1979 Chicago, IL 3,000 25,000 2,300
1980 Seattle, WA 7,500 26,300 2,800
1981 Dallas, TX 14,000 40,560 4,000
1982 Boston, MA 17,000 53,795 5,000
1983 Detroit, MI 14,000 68,575 6,700
1984 Minneapolis, MN 20,390 72,990 9,000
1985 San Francisco, CA 27,000 79,200 12,200
1986 Dallas, TX 22,000 97,000 13,100
1987 Anaheim, CA 30,541 109,200 14,000
1988 Atlanta, GA 19,000 103,050 17,100
1989 Boston, MA 27,000 96,170 20,400
1990 Dallas, TX 24,684 104,850 $334,100.00 23,400
1991 Las Vegas, NV 23,100 106,800 -$298,383.00 27,000
1992 Chicago, IL 34,148 96,900 $210,313.00 31,500
1993 Anaheim, CA 27,000 103,250 $611,056.00 36,000
1994 Orlando, FL 25,000 107,600 $612,855.00 39,600
1995 Los Angeles, CA 40,100 126,000 $1,631,768.00 43,300
1996 New Orleans, LA 28,800 157,800 $2,763,229.00 50,000
1997 Los Angeles, CA 48,700 182,600 $684,526.00 56,100
1998 Orlando, FL 32,210 171,975 $176,680.00 50,000 (wild guess by author)
1999 Los Angeles, CA 42,690 154,000 $316,613.00 45,000 (wild guess by author)
2000 New Orleans, LA 25,986 143,000 $897,806.00 40,000 (wild guess by author)
2001 Los Angeles, CA 34,024 126,000 -$561,535.00 35,000 (wild guess by author)
2002 San Antonio, TX 17,000 82,000 -$2,060,688.00 30,000 (wild guess by author)
2003 San Diego, CA 24,332 68,000 -$5,616.00 25,000 (wild guess by author)

I wanted to graph this data in a meaningful way, and so after some "visual experiments" I came up with plotting each number "normalized" (abbreviated N in the key) as a per centage of its 1995 value (a very good year for SIGGRAPH). The red bars are attendance, the blue bars are square footage of exhibits, the yellow line is profit or loss (where information was available), and the gold line is estimates of the size of the "graphics industry." Where the gold and yellow lines cross, and the red and blue bars are the same height, is the year 1995. (Beware; as the table above shows, these industry numbers after 1997 are my own wild guesses. SGI usually knows why its customers buy servers; Dell seldom does.) Here are those plots:

Attendance, Square Feet of Exhibitors, Profit, and Industry Size (1995=100%)

While this graph makes it clear that this year's conference committee has "pulled the airplane out of the nose-dive," but our base of attendees and exhibitors is still faltering. I get the impression that the current strategy is to "batten down the hatches" and wait out the slump, until the "cheese" moves back. (To understand this metaphor, see Who Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life (1998) by Spencer Johnson [ISBN#0399144463]). But what if the cheese isn't going to move back?

It is a distinct possibility that SIGGRAPH will never be as big again. One other thing that happened in 1993 -- in the heyday of 3D -- was that I realized that one day SIGGRAPH would be gone. I explained it this way to friends: "Do you use pencils? Me too. When was the last time you went to a pencil conference?" I saw that the more mainstream 3D graphics became, the less it would need a conference.

I thought the day would come, but I didn't think it could be so soon. The crash of the "dot cons" has humbled us all. But, as it was said in The Tea House of the August Moon, pain makes one think, thought makes one wise, and wisdom makes life more endurable. One of the great thoughts to come out of recent high-tech misfortunes is presented in The Innovator's Dilemma (1997) by Clayton M. Christensen [ISBN#0060521996]. (All Amazon links in this article will pay into my Associates account if you order throught them. I will donate all proceeds to the SIGKIDS San Diego 2007 fund.) Christensen, at Harvard Business School, has made a study of how high-tech markets implode. He debunks the myth that it's because "big companies just can't innovate." Big companies innovate just fine when dealing with what he calls "sustaining technologies," which can be incrementally improved to match customer demands. But it is "disruptive technologies" which kill companies, because customers say they don't want them, and a month later they all buy them. This is what minicomputers did to mainframes, and what Walmart did to Sears, and what (hydraulic) ditch witches did to (cable-driven) steam shovels, and what 5 1/2 inch disks did to 8 inch disks, and what 3 1/4 inch disks did to 5 1/2 inch disks, and what workstations did to minicomputers, and what PCs did to workstation, and why SGI and Sun are in trouble. It is all explained by this graph, if you can make sense out of it:

from www.fastwater.com/Library/B2BEconomy/disruptive-innovation/disruption.gif

When the capability of the disruptive technology (lower red line) crosses the average market requirements of the original market (upper blue line) all the customers on the upper tier "jump ship" and buy from vendors in the lower market. If the company in the original upper market has other product lines, they may survive, grumbling how you "just can't make money" in the lower tier (this is what SGI says about PCs and Sears says about discount marts); if not, they will probably vanish, like DEC.

You can also find this dynamic discussed by Kevin Kelly in his 1997 essay in Wired, "New Rules for the New Economy" (archived on-line at: www.wired.com/wired/5.09/newrules_pr.html).

It is important that the leadership of SIGGRAPH come to understand these market forces, because they impact our members, our vendors, and our conference. In the case of our annual conference the Web itself makes many of the functions of conferences obsolete, and we need to adapt to this change.

It is also a problem that SIGGRAPH was the "it" conference for a while. It not only stood for 3D graphics and interactive technology, but for technical change in general. But 3D is now getting stale. On the way to the 2003 conference each day I passed a billboard advertising Seaworld's new "Haunted Lighthouse in 4D." I got it: 3D tired, 4D wired. It may be the case that SIGGRAPH will never be the "it" conference again.

The Spirit of SIGGRAPH Yet To Come

The spirit of Christmas Yet To Come took Ebenezer Scrooge to see his own grave. Would the Spirit of SIGGRAPH Yet To Come take us to see the grave of SIGGRAPH, perhaps archived in one last ACM report on the fate of a money-losing SIG that used up all its credit and good will? I suggest that SIGGRAPH could meet a grander fate: destroy it on purpose. Announce in 2005 that 2009 will be the last SIGGRAPH. This will get attention, including media attention. All the old friends of SIGGRAPH will come out of the woodwork, either to try to "save it" or to attend the "wake."

Then, in 2010, replace it with two SIGS: SIG3D and SIGedge. SIG3D should be like SIGGRAPH was around 1983 -- an academic conference on rendering algorithms, exclusive and pricey, with a small exhibition. SIGedge should be like ComiCon meets E3 at Burning Man, family-friendly style. It should be someplace cheaper than a convention center (with its inflated prices for parking, lodging, food and transportation), and be low-enough priced so artists, students, teachers, and just plain folks can get in. Every year there are swarms of people who want to get into SIGGRAPH but can't afford it. We need to target them en masse. Imagine a big VR circus in a mall parking lot that tours the country. If it got big enough it could earn money to support the other more academic SIGs.

I don't know if I have the right answer here for saving SIGGRAPH, but if it stimulates thinking and discussion in the SIGGRAPH community I will have accomplished my goal in writing this article.

-- Alan Scrivener, 24 October 2003.

Postscript: On May 6, 2004 Scott Owen of SIGGRAPH emailed me this pointer to revised conference numbers:


(I haven't had a chance to update the graph and table above.)