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SIGGRAPH 2018: Virtual circus comes to town

Eyes on the prize. Image: enventa

Just four years after its last Vancouver appearance, SIGGRAPH, the annual worldwide trade fair for the burgeoning Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality sector, has once again made landfall in our up-and-coming tech hub.

After spending much of the past week among the 16,000+ global digerati, I can now attest that “I have seen the future and it works.

Sort of. With glitches. A bit clunky and crude, in need of some finish. Still groping for a raison d’être. But bursting with energy and promise.

SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques), is a subset of the international Association for Computing Machinery, or ACM. To the uninitiated, the scene at the Vancouver Convention Centre might have seemed an odd take on the notion of a “fair.”

At the proprietary booths of tech companies – industry titans and start-ups alike – milling geeks craned to gawk at the rather ho-hum spectacle of another fellow nerd, all kitted up in opaque goggles and earphones, cryptically waggling some sort of joystick wand. But that’s just the prosaic view from outside. Inside those goggles whole worlds unfold.

Your intrepid stereoptonaut might be performing open heart surgery. Or plunging through a space-time wormhole. Or initiating a Neolithic shaman. Or trying on alternative genders and ethnicities. Or hang-gliding. Or surveilling Upper Manhattan in real time. Or fighting the War of the Roses. Or … or … or…

With so many and such disparate adventures vying for eyeballs, company barkers patrolled the Convention Centre aisles to reel in the rubes. Some of the snazzier demos, though, needed no shills at all to attract long lines of viewers. At the Disney booth, SIGGRAPH conferees queued up for half an hour or more to savour the three-minute spectacle of Cycles, the company’s first-ever VR movie.

Half a dozen Disneyites stood by to suit us up for the plunge. These were no mere Maître D’s, but rather the core makers of the film – producer, technical director and two separate animators, one for “environments” and another for characters. Together with a team of 50-odd specialist collaborators, they pulled the fleeting three minute drama together in a mere four months – a fair indication of the labour-intensity of VR production at this pioneering phase of its evolution.

My particular cyber-butler turned out to be Jeff Gipson, 33, author, director and conceptual initiator of the whole project. His quirky career to date ideally suits him to make Cycles.

He started out as an architect with a specialty in skate parks, so he knows a thing or two about zipping freestyle through immersive spaces. But he then discovered a passion for mathematically modelled light sculpture, so he signed on with Disney Animation to work on such projects as Frozen and Moana.

Marooned in L.A., far from his native Colorado and his customary skate park milieu, he had to get his hyperkinetic kicks on a BMX bike instead, careening around the abandoned swimming pools of derelict Hollywood Hills mansions.

Those empty haciendas recalled the sprawling ranch house back home where Gipson’s grandparents raised their children and grandchildren until widowhood and infirmity finally forced his grandma to relocate to “Assisted Living.”

Cycles uses VR to situate you, the viewer, in one of those ranch house McMansions. There you witness the distilled lives of its occupant couple, “Bert and Rae” (named after Gipson’s IRL grandparents).

You track them through all the rites of a long marriage, from newlywed threshold-crossing through baby-burping and teen-watch vigils, family feasts, illness, mourning and finally downsizing into a Seniors’ Home. It all ends up with a lingering pan around the dilapidated, graffiti-tagged shell of the now-empty ranch house.

Leap of faith in the Hollywood Hills. Photo: Jeff Gipson

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