How the SIGGRAPH Conference Expands Tech— and Empathy

Empathy in VR is a big theme at the 43rd annual computer graphics confab in Anaheim (July 24-28).
Universal Pictures

Although this year’s SIGGRAPH theme,”Render the Possibilities,” offers a nice catchphrase for all of the cutting-edge CG eye candy on display next week at the Anaheim Convention Center, there’s also a timely sub-theme revolving around empathy in VR, which can be witnessed in other presentations as well.

Given the tragic racial violence and anger that has swept the country, Carnegie Mellon University’s VR experience, “Injustice,” couldn’t be timelier — or more educational. It’s built around racially motivated police brutality. Participants witness an act of racial discrimination, forcing them to make moral and ethical decisions on the spot. They can actively engage with, and alter, the storyline by selecting a variety of dialogue choices.

Similarly, “Invasion!,” explores ideas around character empathy and immersive VR “presence” with a close alien encounter. Presented in real-time and directed by “Madagascar’s” Eric Darnell, the animated short features narration by Ethan Hawke.

Meanwhile, “‘Warcraft’s’ Durotan: Hero, Complex,” explores how Industrial Light & Magic created empathy for the Orc leader (Toby Kebbell) in Duncan Jones’ “Warcraft,” who appears in a remarkable and intimate opening closeup.  It’s very much performance driven by Kebbell, but ILM built a photoreal character that pushed more sophisticated eye development (with greater tear line highlights and reflections and a new gaze tracking system),  a higher fidelity facial lip and lip sync pipeline, a new Haircraft tool and greater movement of skin over tusks simulation.

The ILM panel will be led by Victor Schutz, Paul Giacoppo and Chase Cooper.

Then there’s “From Armadillo to Zebra: Creating the Diverse Characters and World of ‘Zootopia’,” which explores Disney’s surprise blockbuster in which predator and prey try to peacefully co-exit.

Zootopia is a vast, multi-scale city built by animals for animals, including Sahara Square, Tundra Town, the Rainforest District and Bunny Burrow. And figuring out how to adapt individual animal behavior when rigging them on two feet was inspiring after the team went to Kenya. How does an elephant scoop ice cream? Or how do sloths run the DMV? Leading the panel from Disney Animation will be Ernest Petti, Nicholas Burkard, Brian Leach, Sean Palmer, Michelle Robinson and Hans-Joerg Keim.

Also, there’s “Borrowed Time,” the Computer Animation Festival’s “Best in Show” short winner directed independently by two animation friends reunited at Pixar: Andrew Coats (“Inside Out”) and Lou Hamou-Lhadj (“Toy Story 3”). It’s a sensitive and exquisitely rendered story about a mournful sheriff who returns to the scene of a tragic accident he can no longer escape, as painful memories keep flooding back.

“Borrowed Time,” therefore, contains its own lesson in empathy. It will be screen throughout the week and could very well be an Oscar contender.

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