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A High-Tech Woodstock : O.C. Computer Graphics Show Takes Look at Future Workstations, Playthings


ANAHEIM — The woman straps on the harness for the hang glider, and in an instant she is suspended in mid-air. She stares into a monitor that curves around her head and fills her entire field of vision.

It shows her a three-dimensional animated landscape of downtown Los Angeles in the year 2025. The animation is a perfect illusion, and no matter which way she turns her head, she is inside the simulation.

She jumps off a skyscraper and floats into a world of virtual reality, weaving through the flying cars that make up the city's traffic and soaring high above the City of Angels.

"This is sort of like 'Blade Runner' meets the 'Jetsons,' " said Jeff Edwards, gesturing to the hang glider pilot, who unstraps her harness and lets the next person in line into the computer-animated simulation.

Edwards' company, Evans & Sutherland of Salt Lake City, is one of 282 exhibitors displaying virtual reality simulations and other fancy computer graphics at the Siggraph computer graphics show at Anaheim Convention Center this week.

The show delivers a taste of technologies that will change the way we work and play.

"Woodstock for nerds is the best description I've ever heard of Siggraph," said Mark Resch, co-chairman of the convention. "It's also been called a 20-ring circus."

More than 30,000 people are expected to attend the show, which runs through Friday. It is put on by the Assn. for Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics, or Siggraph. On Tuesday afternoon, the line for on-site registration snaked around the exterior of the huge exhibit hall.

Now marking its 20th anniversary, Siggraph gradually has made the move from the technological fringe. It now showcases a big business built around technologies that could lead to virtual-reality amusement parks, interactive art galleries that let you communicate with the art, and computer-generated special effects for movies. One set of exhibits helps teach children how to learn with computers.

"Kids are bored in school because there is more technology in their bedrooms with Nintendo than there is in the whole school," said Coco Conn, curator of the SiggKids exhibit.

Simon Perry, curator of the show's Machine Culture exhibit, said he selected artists for the show who used computers to create works of art that interacted with the people viewing it. "This is really the first year that computers are inexpensive enough for artists to do some really creative things with them," he said.

Like Neuro-Baby. Whenever someone spoke into a microphone at the exhibit, the bouncing animated baby's head would respond with either a piercing shriek or bubbling laughter, depending on how nice the person was.

"It analyzes the tone of voice of the user," Perry said. "It's an artificial being."

Another exhibit consisted of a series of potted ferns linked by a sensor connected to a screen depicting a similar set of ferns. When someone brushed one of the real plants, a new fern would "grow" on the screen.

"The point is to let people know that a keyboard and a mouse are not the only ways that people can interact with a computer," Perry said. "The electrical field of the plants can be used to change the images."

Bruce Cherniak, an IBM employee from Austin, gave a thumbs up to a virtual-reality ride in which he stared into a monitor resembling a submarine periscope. He maneuvered through the game by turning the periscope or swinging his body, which was strapped into a contraption that could rotate 360 degrees.

"I'd pay for it in an arcade," he said, after the ride. "You can get dizzy from it." Most of the exhibitors showed off sophisticated software and computer workstations for 3-D artists or programmers, relatively mundane stuff for the uninitiated technology enthusiast.

But here and there, rising like shrines to technology, huge amusement park-style exhibits stood out from the crowd, showing how far computer workstations have come.

At one workshop, a special-effects expert got a round of applause when he showed how his studio doctored an image of a presidential campaign rally by removing Bill Clinton and superimposing an image of an actor from the new Clint Eastwood movie, "In the Line of Fire." In the film "The Babe," about the life of baseball player Babe Ruth, special-effects wizards were able to fill a stadium with 50,000 fans--even though the studio could hire only 1,000 extras--by inserting computer-generated fans to fill the gaps.

One of the devices on display, Data Mitt, allowed people involved in a telephone conversation to wear electronic gloves and experience the sensation of squeezing each other's hands long-distance.

Another let users view a three-dimensional image from 13 different angles, far more than a typical 3-D rendering. "It is especially useful for advertisers, who get the benefit of having something like a billboard visible from any direction," said Enrique Godreau, curator of the Tomorrow's Realities exhibit.

A so-called virtual actor, a digital image of a shirtless, bare-skinned muscle-man, greeted visitors to one of the technology art exhibitions.

The "actor," whose image was spread across about 15 computer screens linked together to form a "video wall," picked out passersby, asked them their names, and talked to them--all according to a predetermined computer program.

One woman told the machine she was from Texas.

"Well, let's see if you can give us your best 'Yee-Ha!' " the image boomed back in its digitized voice. When she produced just a weak yell, the face on the screen expressed disappointment.

An onlooker walked up and peered behind the video wall, perhaps expecting to find someone controlling the image, like the wizard in "The Wizard of Oz."

But unlike the classic scene in which Dorothy unmasks the wizard, there was nothing back there.

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