Faculty Grant Series: Profs. Warshawsky and Cochran explore SIGGRAPH conference

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Monday, October 3rd, 2022

Attendance at the national SIGGRAPH conference gives attendees an inside look not only at trend-setting computer graphics and interactive techniques, but also at developments that are so early-stage that they haven’t even had a chance to yet become trends.

The summer event, say Profs. Natasha Warshawsky (Chair, Animation & Game Art) and Ellie Cochran (Adjunct, Graphic Design), was an amazing opportunity to connect with other professionals. And, they add, it also was a chance to solidify a place in the PCA&D classroom for new developments in the computer graphics and interactive fields. Warshawsky was the recipient of a PCA&D Educator Professional Development Grant to attend SIGGRAPH 2022. Cochran ’19, Graphic Design, won a Faculty Research and Development Grant which allowed her to attend that same event.

How did these grants, and SIGGRAPH 2022, impact what they’ll be sharing in the classroom? 

Natasha Warshawsky

Why did you choose to apply for a grant specifically to attend SIGGRAPH?
Natasha Warshawsky: SIGGRAPH is, quite frankly, an expensive conference to attend. It’s four or five days long and often hosted in cities far from the US East Coast. The Faculty Development Grant was a great way to offset these costs and make it possible to attend. I hope by using it I can help set a precedent to get other faculty members interested in attending similar academic conferences.
What did you hope to gain as a repeat attendee?
NW: I have been a member since 2013, attended conferences since 2015, and participated as a Chapters Committee member since 2020. In fact, this was my first in-person conference as a committee member, so there were some folks that I finally got to meet in person after seeing them on Zoom once a month for the past two years. Even though a chunk of my time was dedicated to Chapters duties, I still got to see a lot of the conference. This year, compared to other years, had a unique sense of joy and relief to be in person together. We exceeded our participant numbers, which is good for the organization…
Conversations about the metaverse were definitely present and I noticed a sense of hesitancy around it … I noticed whenever “big data” was brought up, it was done so in a way that mentioned ethics, advocacy, or an artistic commentary. This was not always convincing, however — do we really need to spend millions of dollars scanning entire cities with drones?
The Computer Animation Festival (CAF) had a surprising and refreshing selection of animated short films with more complex themes than usual. I’m going to greatly oversimplify, but in the past, these films often demonstrated a unique technical accomplishment or a compelling story, but not often both. Typically a lot of “happy ever after” art direction experiments. This year, however, that was not the case and I found myself wanting to research each film a little more afterward to understand the context or the director. The subject matter was heavier, with some connecting themes of war, violence, and oppression. 
Can you talk about a specific highlight?
NW: A highlight for me was a Production Session on Disney/Pixar’s “Turning Red” which I finally got to watch on the plane ride over. Although the session covered a number of topics, art direction was at the focus for each one. The art direction was described as “teenage fever dream, Y2K chunky cute,” and it influenced every aspect of the film, even down to the more technical aspects such as rendering, rigging, crowd sim work… etc. One example was the type of specular highlight reflection on their metal shaders were rounder, chunkier, and cuter than their other, more photoreal productions. There was a focus on inclusive representation — late in production they audited their background characters, then adjusted the number of Asian characters on screen to more accurately match the Asian-Canadian population percentage of Toronto. The production embraced graphic 2D elements, stylized low-frame animation choices, and other iconic Y2K anime symbols that are not typically used in 3D animation. 
How do you see what you learned attending SIGGRAPH impacting your classroom and/or your own projects? 
NW: Every year there is a ton of information and research to take in. Since games, animation, and computer graphics are all rapidly changing fields, it’s important our department stays informed on what the industry standard methods and hiring practices are to best equip our students. It is also important to me that PCA&D has a presence each year to make our mark in the academic world. Though we are small and not located in an “industry hub” city, I have noticed our name is starting to become recognizable. For example, I got to chat with a recruiter from Disney Animation at one point, and she said to me ‘Oh I recognize PCA&D! You guys were in the Faculty Submitted Student Work category!’


Prof. Natasha Warshawsky’s display at SIGGRAPH 2022 featured student work. Photo courtesy Natasha Warshawsky.

Ellie Cochran

What inspired you to use the grant to attend SIGGRAPH?

Ellie Cochran: I was inspired because it represents the gestalt of computer graphics, human-computer interaction, digital design and art, and media production. I believe that this synthesis of different fields is a vital step toward human-centered XR design.

I’m fascinated by visionaries like Susan Kare and Dieter Rams, who applied human-centered design thinking and clear sensory communication to complex technologies in order to make them accessible, attractive, and fun (!) for as many people as possible.

Today we are in the midst of yet another personal technology revolution: Many of us already have “digital twins” which we use to interact with online virtual “spaces” such as social media. The idea of making these online spaces fully immersive and 3D isn’t a new one, but designers of the last few decades didn’t have high-powered computers in their pockets or strapped to their bodies. Many of these devices are capable of 3D scanning, and many, many more are capable of acting as an augmented or virtual reality viewport.

However, in order for any new creative technology to gain relevance, it has to have that human-centered design approach that makes it *fun* for artists to create with and *easy* for viewers to experience. 

What did you hope to gain from SIGGRAPH as a first-time attendee? 

EC: In such fast-paced fields as computer art and digital design, it can be difficult to stay up to date with the latest research and technical information. Since mixed-reality design often involves communication via multiple sensory channels as well as usage of novel technologies, every new paper can represent a major workflow change.

By attending SIGGRAPH, I hoped to better understand human perception and applied design thinking in the augmented and virtual reality “metaverse” space, and return to my students and my studio with the latest design strategies and information to engage the next generation of designers. 

It was also a great opportunity to network with other design professionals and educators in this space, and view some really incredible artwork which combined existing and novel technologies in new ways to create new types of human/computer interactions and to have a chat with the artists behind the works to better understand their processes and technologies. 

What was the experience like? 

EC: Absolutely overwhelming in the best way possible. I never got more than about 5 hours of sleep at a time, but the constant flow of novel information was incredibly stimulating — I just recently finished transcribing all my notes!

Being able to attend SIGGRAPH with someone who was already familiar with the conference and knew some attendees was indispensable in helping me navigate the space. Thanks, Natasha!

Most of my time was taken up by presentations and lectures so I didn’t do as much talking to strangers as I had hoped, but I did manage to get in some conversations with new friends about platforms and strategies which I wouldn’t have otherwise considered. Ultimately, being surrounded by other people fascinated by the intersection of design and technology was incredible and provided a cool opportunity to discuss still-nascent artistic possibilities. 

How do you see what you learned impacting your classroom as well as your day-to-day work? 

EC: One of the difficulties in teaching design for extended reality is that designers really need to use XR themselves in order to understand its impact on a user and how to design for it. The required financial investment in XR technology is one reason why students (and professionals!) find themselves unable to break into this new field. However, the tools for rapidly prototyping mixed/virtual reality experiences are becoming incredibly accessible. Designers today can draw a paper sketch, scan it with their phone, and instantly have a 360-degree virtual reality interface prototype that they can look around inside of. They can iterate on a concept at the speed of pencil on paper, as opposed to having to build full-scale test applications just to try out a new visual concept. 

As an instructor, I’m now empowered to teach XR design theory and give prototyping assignments which my students can then include in their portfolios as interactive virtual-reality demos without having to teach the code or technological processes required to create their own app from scratch or use expensive full-scale VR hardware for testing and iteration.

This lower barrier to entry also makes the design conversation more accessible, leading to increasingly diverse perspectives and voices all working together to find the most effective solution for a given design challenge. This is necessary because design for extended reality often involves many emotional, sensory, and body ability considerations which may be overlooked by individuals with more privilege.

In my personal work, which currently focuses on creating “synesthetic” multi-modal experiences in non-synesthetes, having a better understanding of multi-sensory perception will inform work which more effectively engages people’s existing associations between different perceptual fields.