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COMPANY TOWN : SGI Pushing Digital Effects to Next Level


Computer-generated dinosaurs, ho-hum.

Silicon Graphics Inc. plans to demonstrate early versions of computer software today that the company says will make synthetic actors commonplace within a few years.

"In the first stages of computer animation we've been good at the lower life forms--ants, insects, reptiles," says Rob Burgess, president of SGI's computer graphics software subsidiary. "Now we're going to take on mammals."

Digital effects have been playing a growing role in movies, from "Forrest Gump" to "Casper," as film makers discover the capacity of computers to create ever-more-sophisticated illusions. And substituting virtual objects for real ones has even been known to save money.

But convincingly replicating the images of human reality--skin moving over bones, or long hair blowing in the wind--has for the most part been beyond the grasp of even the most powerful software.

SGI's "Project Maya" aims to create tools that simplify the creation of complex images and environments. Its goal is also to speed the rate at which computer graphics can be developed, in part by shielding the artist from the technology with a more intuitive interface.

The new software, for instance, might allow them to simply draw what they want to see.

The project is part of an effort to give the entertainment industry incentive to keep buying sophisticated SGI machines at a time when digital effects are increasingly easy to create on far less expensive personal computers.

To compete in an environment of rapidly falling computer prices and ever-faster processor speeds, SGI has to offer film makers and artists more bang for the buck.

That was one motivation behind the firm's purchase earlier this year of Alias Research Inc. and Wavefront Technologies Inc., two of the leading manufacturers of computer graphics software. The newly merged companies, based in Toronto, are developing the new set of software. The first products are expected to be released within a year.

The announcement is to be made in conjunction with the Siggraph convention of computer animators and designers at the Los Angeles Convention Center this week.

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