SIGGRAPH 2017 was a hit. More than 16,500 attendees visited the conference and exhibition at the Los Angeles Convention Center this year, SIGGRAPH said. That represents an uptick after a long period of dwindling attendance. As recently as last year, it seemed the show had leveled out, having drawn a mere 14,000 in each of three locations — Vancouver, Los Angeles, and Anaheim — so a quick 10% increase is a welcome sign of life.

Unlike the past few years, where design, visualization and simulation applications had somewhat eclipsed VFX at SIGGRAPH, 2017 was a showcase for emerging computer graphics techniques with real implications for media and entertainment. The standout trend was probably machine learning. As computational power becomes more affordable to the content creation industry, computers can increasingly be trained to evaluate and manipulate images in ways that used to require the intervention of a human artist. Facial recognition, real-time lip sync of rigged CG models, roto and depth-mapping are all tasks that can be dramatically simplified by smarter AI.

As previously reported, Nvidia showed a technique using neural networks to accelerate ray-tracing, perhaps using its powerful “deskside workstation,” the DGX Station. AMD came out swinging with Project 47, a design based on Inventec’s P-series parallel computing platform comprising a rack of individual servers driving Radeon Instinct MI25 accelerators, leveraging Samsung NVMe SSD storage and DDR4 memory for performance. InfiniBand from Mellanox Technologies ensures connectivity among the components, AMD said. The platform is said to deliver 1 petaFLOPS of compute power, and is being pitched at machine learning applications along with the usual virtualization and rendering tasks. The system is scheduled to ship from Inventec in Q4.

In the VR Village

Meanwhile, despite talk in the wider world of a VR bubble, SIGGRAPH’s VR Village was back, with exhibits already focused on higher quality for next-generation iterations of 360-degree experiences. That meant looking at new ways of easing eyestrain by addressing the vergence-accommodation conflicts that are inherent to stereoscopic near-eye display devices.

Nvidia, for instance, presented “varifocal virtuality,” which uses a transparent back-projection screen for holographic AR displays that could be dramatically smaller and lighter than the current generation of VR headsets. The demonstration included research from Associate Professor of Optometry Marty Banks’ Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, suggesting chromatic aberration can be a cue to help the human brain gauge the position of an object in space.

And Oculus Research posited a controllable element, the “spatial light modulator,” that that could be used in a head-mounted display to bend light rays appropriately in different parts of a scene, creating a “focal surface display” that it said would allow the focus of a scene to follow its three-dimensional contours while we wait for truly holographic displays to become feasible.

Along with advances in 3D environments and holographic displays comes an apparent paradox — as convincing as the images may be when you see them, it is impossible to actually touch them. But SIGGRAPH was a showcase for a lot of new developments in haptic feedback, which can be used to convincingly mimic the presence of an object that only exists in virtual space. Demonstrations included shape-shifting handheld controllers, feedback-producing gloves and fingertip devices, and even attempts at simulating immersive environments for room-scale VR.

If you believe the real problem with VR is a social one, SIGGRAPH had you covered there, too, with a demonstration of David Lobser’s Flock, a VR experience designed to encourage interaction among multiple users, who are encouraged to become birds in a flock, “dining on colorful, procedurally generated insects.”

Such cutting-edge stuff may seem quaint, though, next to the brain-computer interface, or BCI, brought to the show by start-up Neurable. The company demonstrated a modified HTC Vive running Neurable’ s BCI software — driven through the use of seven scalp-mounted electrodes that detect electrical signals in the brain as it responds to stimuli — which it says “analyze[s] patterns of brain activity to determine user intent.”

For SIGGRAPH, Neurable developed a prototype of a brain-controlled VR game called Awakening that it says it hopes to provide to VR arcades next year. IEEE Spectrum has a detailed description of the technology, plus an interview with Neurable CEO Ramses Alcaide.

SIGGRAPH 2017 Award-Winners

SIGGRAPH’s award for Best Real-Time Graphics and Interactivity went to “The Human Race,” a presentation by The Mill in collaboration with Epic Games showing how The Mill’s Blackbird automobile rig was replaced by a rendered and seamlessly composited CG car in real-time during the live-action shoot, allowing the directors to see final looks while still on location.

The Best in Show prize for the Emerging Technologies program went to MetaLimbs: Arms Interaction Metamorphism, which demonstrated a system that allowed users to control two additional robotic arms using their legs and feet.

At the Computer Animation Festival, Best in Show went to “Song of a Toad,” from Germany, the Jury’s Choice award went to “John Lewis Buster the Boxer” from the U.K., and “Garden Party” from France was selected as Best Student Film.

Best Art Paper went to Robert Twomey of Youngstown State University and Michael McCrea of the University of Washington for “Transforming the Commonplace Through Machine Perception: Light-Field Synthesis and Audio-Feature Extraction in the Rover Project.” An image-capturing device takes pictures from multiple vantage points within a scene, gathering hundreds of images that allow the space to be explored later, using computational techniques. The idea, its creators say, is literary — inspired by W.H. Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn and cinematography in Andrei Tarkovksy’s films, their Rover generates a new kind of visual travelogue that investigates commonplace locations.

Heady stuff? Just another SIGGRAPH. The show heads back to Vancouver next year, where it occupies the Vancouver Convention Centre from August 12-16.