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Seen at Siggraph Vancouver 2014

By Ralph Grabowski, August 19, 2014

Article first appeared in upFront.eZine
Reprinted here with permission

Gripping the essentials for making it through each conference day: caffeine and always-on Internet

Three years ago at Siggraph, the emphasis of the show was on 3D and the cloistered graphics industry was 100% convincing itself that 3D televisions (and 3D movie houses) were to be their financial salvation, as consumers would be fooled into upgrading their brand-new 2D tvs for all-new 3D ones, except that never happened, as we weren't going to be seen wearing those gorky-looking polarizing glasses, plus hadn't he just re-mortgaged the house for one of those monster flatscreen tvs and so she darn sure wasn't going to let that be happening anytime again soon.

"Everyone's competing for the love they won't receive."
- Lorde

Back in 2011 (the other year Siggraph was in Vancouver, Canada), I watched the 3D displays on the show floor and I got that headache, as each of my eyeballs fought for their share of the half-display. I came away pessimistic of the impending success of all-3D that giddy insiders were hawking throughout the show's exhibition floor and seminars.

Now it is three years later. At Siggraph 2014, that skateboarder is still in his safety cage swooshing back and forth over the plywood half-pipe on behalf of some 3D motion tracking firm whose name I don't recall. Yip, 3D is still around, it's just toned down, because mobile is the new salvation today. "Tablets!" brightens the eyes of booth-bound employees - even as tablet sales begin their unexpected downturn.

"This is the year of mobile," proclaims industry analyst Jon Peddie at his annual Siggraph luncheon. [Disclosure: I won a Lenovo A10 Android tablet during his luncheon.]

And so there were big booths from mobile chip competitors ARM, Imagination Technologies, Nvidia, and Qualcomm, plus wanna-be Intel who sponsored a small mobile-only booth for small firms. Even here, the emphasis, as always at Siggraph, was on gaming or movies, so it's hard for a CAD reporter to ferret data useful for my readers.

But imagine this:

Imagination Technology

Imagination, who specializes in GPUs for mobile devices, tells me they plan to have ray tracing working on tablets "in a couple of years." They were demo'ing their software in the form of "Visualizer," a SketchUp ray-tracing add-on they sell for $20. ("We are surprised that our biggest customers are architects"; I'm not.) Until then, they recommend that for the best graphics today we look for tablets that list "Rogue" or "VPower 6.0" in their specs. "How can tablets be priced with this technology," I asked? As cheap as $150-$200.


Remember when nVidia vowed to take over the mobile CPU industry? And then an oopsie occurred when that never happened. So today only a few devices use nVidia SoCs [systems on a chip], such as the three-year-old ASUS TF-101 tablet upon which I write this report - the first ever tablet powered by nVidia. Yah, so that setback never stopped the company, which now has its own line of gaming Android devices, the first(?) 64-bit CPU for Androids, and heavy involvement in Google's Project Tango, where the tablet has additional cameras for 3D sensing.

nVidia showing off Google's 3D-seeing Tango tablet hooked up to a workstation running their Quadro graphics boards

Also, nVidia was showing off monitors by Dolby (who knew?) that featured 12-bits of color depth to make dark areas blacker and bright areas brighter. Only Dolby monitors can reproduce this Dobly technology, though driven by nVidia graphics boards, naturally. (But see the report on Benq further down.)


Then there is ARM, the British firm responsible for all CPU/GPUs in all mobile devices today, except for those from Intel. Nvidia, Qualcomm, Imagination, Samsung, and others license RISC-based CPU and GPU designs from ARM to be compatible with Android; Apple is a licensee on the iOS side. Only Intel is doing the hard work of writing their own layer between Android and their own chips.

The fellow I spoke with at the booth is on the GPU team and he expressed his frustration that CAD software programmers don't take greater advantage of built-in capabilities, like these ones:

He sees no reason why CAD viewers can't handle massive drawings on mobile devices, whether in wireframe mode or shaded - if only they were coded to properly take advantage of ARM-based RISC chips. Class 10 SD memory cards are sufficiently fast for delivering data, he said. As for renderings, he figures that OpenGLES (the movile version of Open GL) will have the same capabilities as desktop OpenGL within a year, and so it will be trivial for CAD firms to fully port their display engines to ARM. The great problem, he admitted, is that tablets are better at consumption than creation.


For the creation problem, I have a solution that I cannot tell you about. I've twice now met with a two-man firm who solved the fat-finger problem for inputting data to tabletCAD. They don't want to go public until it is pretty much done, an event whose date the pair don't know and about which they are unworried. They don't see a point in partnering with venture capitalists, because then the VCs take over direction; they can't partner with other CAD vendors, because their system would not mesh easily with existing products. All I can say today is that the base upon which they build their software has the strongest pedigree in our industry. Well, that, and that they have an interesting version of a meta format.

They enjoy the meetings with me, they tell me, because they are interested in the questions with which I pepper them. It's fun talking to two guys who are thinking more deeply about tablets than the rest of the entire CAD industry combined.

Facebook Occulus and ESRI

Facebook had a booth, showing off Occulus Rift. Google had a 10x10-foot booth, giving away Cardboard. Apple had a booth, but only in the jobs section. HP, Lenovo, and Dell each had a big presence outside the show, but no booths. After skipping a year, Autodesk M&E had a smaller booth. Nvidia went huge, boasting a booth so big it crossed over to the next aisle.

upFront.eZine editor Ralph Grabowski experiencing vertigo as he peers over the edge of a skyscraper inside an imaginary city created through ESRI software and Occulus hardware

I skipped the lineup at the Facebook booth by trying Occulus Rift virtual reality headgear at the ESRI booth. ESRI at Siggraph? They were showing off their virtual cities software, and one way to view cities virtually is with headgear like Occulus Rift. Underwhelming.


I still keep calling them ATi, especially because everything about the FirePro graphics board look is still the same post-acquisition. Nevertheless, AMD upgraded most of their graphics boards for Siggraph, typically doubling the on-board memory and upping the GPU power. Their top-end board, the W9100, has 16GB RAM and runs 5 TFLOPS of computing power; it handles six 4K displays.

In their booth, they showed off serious software running on OpenCL (compute language), the programming language that runs on "any" graphics board faster than any CPU. AMD also sponsored a pretty interesting tour of Vancouver Film School, which you can read about in WorldCAD Access blog.


Lenovo is the biggest seller of personal computers, but in the workstation area they are #3, and so they tried the hardest at Siggraph to impress us in the media. For their workstation line, they decided to drop the multi-named range of systems for a single name ("P" for professional), and then a range of BMW-like model numbers to indicate power. A P900 is more powerful than a P300.

Other workstation vendors say you can take apart much of their desktop machines with no tools, but Lenovo went all the way: even the motherboard comes out with no tools. Clips and handles (lined with red lines to indicate they remove something) abound. I had the pleasure of meeting the fellow in charge of designing all of Lenovo's computers; he doesn't look like the stereotypical designer dude. Fun fact: once 64GB memory modules become available, Lenovo's top end workstation will be able to hold 1TB of RAM.

Their new workstation laptop features two batteries, one internal, the other external. The external one can be hot-swapped for long-term, outdoor use.


Benq had a trio of monitors to show me, primarily for photographers that reproduce colors 99% accurately for specific end cases, such as printed brochures or Web pages; the monitor stores 50 destination settings. Of greater interest to me was their new 32" monitor that displays 4K resolution with the deep blacks and bright whites I saw on the Dolby monitor - but for only $1000 and available at BestBuy.

New to their monitors is an external menu controller, a puck that lets you change the monitor's settings without squinting at the otherwise marginally-readable buttons. Also new: a low-blue-light setting for those users who are convinced blue lighting is evil.


SPEC is the organization that creates benchmarks used by hardware and software makers to see how their products compare with competitors; also used by large design firms to see which hardware-software is the best for them.

The organization sponsored a lunch for some in the media, and we chatted about trends. Like tablets. The meeting was off the record, but I did want to report on one item mentioned. One member of SPEC said their benchmark had found that parts of the software from one company ran up to 10x slower than was possible. Kind of irritating, when you think of sitting and waiting for the software to finish its work - only to learn it's on coffee break itself. Still, when the software vendor learns this, he has the ability to fix the constriction.

Jon Peddie Research

Each year at Siggraph, Jon Peddie sponsors a two-hour luncheon where we get free food, but more importantly we hear from him and a group of panelists. He recaps the year in computer graphics, and makes predictions for the next couple of years. For instance, a survey he took of firms found that 52% found that "remotely accessing workstations from home" - i.e., virtualization - was somewhat or very important. The others thought it was mildly interesting or not at all.

Jon Peddie reports on the year past, and the years to come at his annual Siggraph luncheon

That CAD/CAM software market makes up 53% of total computer graphics sales, representing $7.7 billion in 2013; the other 47% consists of raster and vector imaging, visualization, digital video, and modeling and animation.

That mobile devices make up an astounding 74% of the hardware market for computer graphics, but workstations only 5%.

This year's panel talked about virtualization; some found it useful, others noted that the cloud lacks the bandwidth and reliable computing power needed for working 24/365 generating renderings for movies. Panelists complained the most about software vendors who are stuck in the 1900s with their licensing policies that tied one license to one seat, and locked it to geographic regions - and so are out of touch from today's reality of working globally around the clock.

Thinkbox, Viecom, and Vancouver School of Art

I report on these firms at WorldCAD Access:

Vancouver School of Art runs 745 HP Z-class workstations on fibre networks, but they also teach hand methods of animation

Siggraph is an abbreviation for "special interest group - graphics," and is run by ACM, the Association of Computing Machinery. From the names, you can tell that these organizations got their start in the 1970s, when an acronym like SIG became commonplace. The show is next year in Los Angeles then Anaheim, and then Los Angeles again - although attendees are getting discouraged at how expensive it's gotten. An exhibit-only pass is $75.

About the Author

ralph  Ralph Grabowski, TenLinks senior editor, is one of the leading CAD journalists and authors, with over a 100 books and many hundreds of articles. His upFront.eZine may be the industry’s longest running newsletter. Ralph holds a civil engineering degree. More…

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