Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning ACM at 60: a look back in time


From a small group of like-minded scientists drawn to the dynamics of computer-generated images to a driving force in computer graphics bringing together thousands from around the world, SIGGRAPH continues to chart the course for this diverse and ever-changing field.
  1. Introduction
  2. In the Beginning
  3. The Ongoing Organization
  4. Conclusion
  5. References
  6. Authors
  7. Figures

This is the story of ACM SIGGRAPH—the professional organization for people who work with computer-generated images. SIGGRAPH’s mission is to promote the generation and dissemination of information on computer graphics and interactive techniques. Our story includes some uphill struggles along the way toward major goals and accomplishments and a few slides past important opportunities. We believe that people who are trying new things must risk some mistakes along the way, hoping to learn from them. However, an organization with constant turnover in volunteer leadership has both the benefit of fresh ideas and the problem of short institutional memory. In this story of the evolution of ACM SIGGRAPH, we focus on trends and directions of the organization, rather than the persons who charted those directions. Clearly the personalities of the SIGGRAPH leaders have been important in setting directions, but we focus on overall effects without names, except for those of the founders.

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In the Beginning

In the early 1960s, a small community of university and industry research people began to create images with computers. Because the technology was primitive and expensive, they found it critical to share ideas as they invented the field of computer graphics [1]. After convincing ACM that computer graphics was an important field with a growing following, a Special Interest Committee on graphics—SICGRAPH—was formed in 1963. By the late 1960s, ACM deemed it had matured into a Special Interest Group, one of the few in ACM at that time. SIGGRAPH was officially formed by Sam Matsa and Andries van Dam in 1969 [4].

Most of the fundamental questions in graphics were first studied in the 1970s, when the feeling was that “computer graphics is always a year away” [3]. Although hardware was primitive, interesting work done on plotters, monochrome vector-refresh systems, or storage-tube systems formed the core of the computer graphics field (as illustrated in Figure 1).

Since there were no working graphics standards in the 1970s, SIGGRAPH focused much of its attention on standards and led the development of the GSPC CORE standard [5]. This was overtaken in the international standards area by the Graphical Kernel System (GKS). These and a series of other standards were developed and eventually largely passed over.

In the 1960s, the SIGGRAPH founders gave talks at various conferences and held short courses. A conference on computer graphics in medicine was held in 1972, and the fledgling group also organized sections on graphics at national conferences, such as the National Computing Conference and the Fall and Spring Joint Computer conferences. They developed the quarterly Computer Graphics as a journal and the SIGRAFFITI newsletter. Computer Graphics published research results and attracted many members to the rapidly growing SIG. The first general SIGGRAPH conference in 1974 was a modest event that seeded the annual conference—SIGGRAPH’s most visible activity. Over the years, the proceedings of the annual SIGGRAPH conference has come to be regarded as the world’s premier place to publish computer graphics research, with the proceedings of other SIGGRAPH conferences also highly respected.

The SIGGRAPH Video Review (SVR)—a video journal for computer animations—had its first issue in 1980. SVR contains both technical and artistic animation and has showcased the latest animation research, tools, and techniques. In the early days, it included industry demo reels and work from research laboratories, but recently it has mostly artistic work or technical tours de force. Each year the SVR issues capture the state of the art in animation.

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The Ongoing Organization

SIGGRAPH membership grew rapidly in its early years to 3,000 members by 1977 and almost 12,000 by 1990. Membership fell dramatically to less than 6,000 by 1999, but is now back to near 8,000. The drop was partly the result of a dues increase in 1992 made necessary by lower conference returns. Dues were to cover the cost of member benefits (mostly publications) plus a portion of the Executive Committee’s cost. The rest of the services to the community (SIGGRAPH’s “good works”) came from surpluses of the annual conference, and have included projects such as funding Tom Apostol’s Mathematics! materials. (The annual dues have recently been raised, with the goal of having these dues and other organizational income cover all of the SIG’s costs rather than depending on the annual conference to return a surplus.)

Of course, a SIG is much more than membership and budgets. Its real effects are its activities and products. Besides the annual conference for which SIGGRAPH is best known, it has developed strong programs in smaller conferences, education, chapters, awards, and international activities.

The annual SIGGRAPH conference. The 1974 conference in Boulder, CO, drew about 600 attendees, and a few of these hardy souls have attended every SIGGRAPH annual conference since [6]. Abstracts of the papers at this conference were printed in Computer Graphics (Vol. 8, No. 33, Fall 1974), and full papers were published in the first volume of Computers & Graphics.

The early SIGGRAPH conferences were relatively informal, with the best papers published in Communications of the ACM. Strict paper refereeing began in 1977, the first year the conference was held at a conference center. That year also included excellent audiovisual facilities and an exhibit hall featuring 38 exhibitors [6]. The technical strength of the conference lay in its courses, papers, and panels programs; Figures 2 and 3 show major technical breakthroughs in image creation.

The “open-deck” video sessions and computer art exhibits became established programs by the early 1980s. The art exhibit was controversial but has endured despite internal debate. The exhibition of interactive work was first presented in 1991 and is now called “Emerging Technologies,” and the Pathfinders program, introduced in 1998, helps orient new attendees to the conference. Important examples of computer graphics for art are illustrated by Figures 4 and 5.

The annual conference became a source of ideas and excitement about graphics for anyone involved in computer graphics. SIGGRAPH was the place to publish in computer graphics, and one of the hallmarks of the conference was the feeling that publishing one SIGGRAPH paper could be enough for an academic person to receive tenure. It was also the place to see everyone with whom you wanted to talk about computer graphics.

The number of attendees at the annual conference grew rapidly, from an initial 600 in 1974 to a few thousand by the early 1980s. The growth continued, with some setbacks, to a maximum of 48,700 in 1997 [2]. The business slowdown and consolidation of the graphics industry around the turn of the millennium brought down the numbers, and they have settled back into the 25,000 to 30,000 range, with about 7,000 registering for the full conference, and the remainder attending limited conference programs. Figure 6 shows group interactions at SIGGRAPH 2006.

The emergence of the National Computer Graphics Association (NCGA) in the 1980s also influenced the annual SIGGRAPH conference. NCGA was formed because people in the graphics industry felt that SIGGRAPH was too academic and didn’t focus enough on industry issues. NCGA thrived as graphics rapidly made inroads into the computing industry. Because NCGA’s conference was very competitive in attendance, exhibition, and content, the SIGGRAPH conference was forced to look carefully at its own quality and appeal. However, when economic conditions could no longer support two major graphics conferences, the community stayed loyal to the conference with the greatest history. By the late 1990s, NCGA was no longer a viable event.

While the earliest SIGGRAPH conference proceedings were very simple, the 1977 proceedings included color pages and higher-quality paper [6]. The tradition of producing quality proceedings began by the late 1970s and by 1990 proceedings production was very well organized. In 2003, the conference proceedings became an issue of the ACM Transactions on Graphics (TOG), to the benefit of both the conference and the publication.

The conference pioneered electronic publications on CD-ROM, starting with experiments in 1990 and 1992; full conference proceedings on CD-ROM using the first release of Adobe Acrobat were produced in 1993. This proved successful and was quickly expanded to include the conference course notes and other materials. The proceedings and other materials have been produced on DVD since 2003. The SVR also moved from videotape to DVD in 1999.

Early conferences were completely volunteer-run, but before long it was clear that professional assistance was needed. The conference developed significant contractor support for operational areas, and conference administration changed from volunteers to contractors for the 1997 conference because of increased conference complexity and a higher volume of submissions. The effect is smoother administration, but this additional expense has limited the conference’s flexibility to respond to financial changes. SIGGRAPH has recently given up the policy of holding the conference away from the West Coast every second year because of the higher West Coast participation and revenue.

SIGGRAPH’s “small conferences.” SIGGRAPH’s conference history started well before its well-known annual conference began. Smaller, more focused conferences have been an important activity throughout its history, and the focus has varied over the years. A major emphasis on these conferences began in the late 1980s when the proceedings of these meetings were made available to the general membership. They are now a major SIGGRAPH activity and are called the SIGGRAPH Symposia, reflecting the fact that some of these events have become fairly large conferences. The symposia focus on topics the annual conference typically does not address. They follow new research and development trends and generally let the research community nimbly create new opportunities to develop these areas.

The data on the number of SIGGRAPH-sponsored events indicates its wide-ranging impact. Over the last 18 months, SIGGRAPH sponsored or co-sponsored 22 events and was in cooperation with 30 more. These events include animation, hardware, perception, computational geometry, modeling, VR, user interface, and Web technology, as well as general international regional conferences. While many of these events are small, they support SIGGRAPH’s founding intent of gathering people for focused discussions, publishing key results, and building the graphics community. Figure 7 depicts some of the many publications derived from SIGGRAPH events.

A significant collaboration has developed with the European Association for Computer Graphics (Eurographics) to co-sponsor workshops and conferences, and there is a trend toward co-sponsoring events that are co-located with each group’s annual conference in alternating years. Examples include workshops on graphics hardware, animation, and education. This seems to bring a larger audience to the smaller events and probably brings a few more attendees to the organizations’ annual conferences.

ACM SIGGRAPH has missed some small-conference opportunities. Although it published the ground-breaking panel report on visualization in 1998, the SIGGRAPH leadership chose not to pursue a visualization conference. Since then, IEEE and Eurographics have developed such conferences and SIGGRAPH has essentially no presence in visualization. Similarly, a large cartographic society was interested in collaborating in the early 1990s, but SIGGRAPH did not follow up on this in time to make an event happen. There have, however, been some interesting collaborations in this area in recent years.

Education has always been an important element to SIGGRAPH, originally expressed through presentations and conference courses. An education committee, formed in the early 1980s, created resources (such as curriculum and resource studies, an education directory, and a career handbook). Moreover, education workshops were held at the annual conference from 1987–1990. A formal educators program was offered in 1991 and revived in the mid-1990s as an ongoing conference activity. Education activities include work at both the elementary/secondary and post-secondary level. Recently, much of the conference education work seems to focus on the former, while most of the SIGGRAPH Education Committee work has involved the latter.

There has been a lot of collaboration with Eurographics on education activities, and a series of issue-focused education workshops has been developed with Eurographics since 1999. These workshops have mostly focused on computer graphics in undergraduate computer science, but there has been recent work on visual learning and there are plans to cover the arts and other areas.

Chapters—known as “local groups” until the 1990s—were active early in SIGGRAPH’s history, but the earliest record of local groups in Computer Graphics was December 1981 when groups were either active or forming in Washington, Los Angeles, Boston, Princeton, and Philadelphia. In an effort to bring some order to the set of local groups, the Executive Committee created a position of chair of local groups, and a local groups committee was formed. This position was designated an elected Director for Local Groups (later a Director for Chapters) position around 1990.

SIGGRAPH generally follows the ACM Chapters model, and chapters are impressively spread around the world. As of early 2006, over 90 SIGGRAPH chapters were chartered or in formation, with many different levels of activity and many different kinds of focus. In 2005, 21 chapters organized 105 events attended by 2,576 persons. SIGGRAPH has generously supported the chapters’ organization over the years, and the Chapters have a large open party at the annual conference.

Awards. As SIGGRAPH and computer graphics matured, it became important to recognize those people who led the development of the field. Two awards were initiated in 1983: The Steven A. Coons Award, which is given biennially to honor an individual for lifetime contribution to computer graphics and interactive techniques, and the Computer Graphics Achievement Award given annually to recognize an individual for an outstanding achievement in computer graphics and interactive techniques. The Outstanding Service Award, first presented in 1998, is given biennially to recognize a career of outstanding volunteer service to ACM SIGGRAPH, and the Significant New Researcher award has been presented annually since 2001 to a researcher who is new to the field and has made a recent significant contribution to computer graphics.

SIGGRAPH faces the challenge of ever-changing technology as graphics moves from difficult to easy, from unusual to ubiquitous, from technical specialists to general users.

International activities and relation with other societies. In the 1980s, SIGGRAPH emphasized its relationship with the NICOGRAPH industry organization in Japan. For several years SIGGRAPH maintained a liaison with Japan, primarily to translate conference information into Japanese. There are now liaisons with two Japanese organizations—DCAj and CG-Arts—who do these translations.

Relations with IEEE have always been cordial, and there was a member-registration exchange between SIGGRAPH and IEEE until 1993. However, SIGGRAPH’s financial condition at that time led to the termination of this practice. Much of SIGGRAPH’s early standards work was shared with European researchers, and in the early 1980s both SIGGRAPH and Eurographics included sessions organized by the other’s group at their annual conferences. However, these were not successful, and their failure discouraged further formal cooperation until the 1990s. Since then, efforts on both sides have developed active collaborations on workshops and education.

SIGGRAPH’s international relationships are very broad. In addition to Eurographics and the Japanese organizations, there are also relationships with SIGRAD in Sweden, CSIG and CCIF in China, and the International Games Development Association. Starting in the late 1990s, there was additional interest in helping develop computer graphics communities around the world by assisting in the formation of new regional associations. This collaborative effort with Eurographics involved sending delegations to meet with people in various regions to discuss forming associations and regional conferences. The resultant groups in Southern Africa (AFRIGRAPH), Australia/New Zealand (ANZGRAPH), and Southeast Asia (SEAGRAPH), have all had successful conferences that have been held more than once. These groups needed help with organization, but the value to their communities and to the computer graphics community worldwide has been more than worth the effort. This work is ongoing, and there is currently an effort to create a major Asian conference involving computer graphics researchers in China, Japan, Korea, and Singapore.

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The SIGGRAPH leadership has moved on from the original founders of the group, and SIGGRAPH’s overall focus has broadened to include more of the arts, design, and entertainment. This is reflected in its annual conference, especially on the exhibition floor, and in its other global activities. Although the annual conference’s technical content is as strong as ever, it does not include all areas of graphics research. SIGGRAPH’s other conferences support the overall growth in these areas.

SIGGRAPH faces the challenge of ever-changing technology as graphics moves from difficult to easy, from unusual to ubiquitous, from technical specialists to general users. Computer graphics research is becoming more esoteric, and the field is developing sub-specialties as new approaches continue to develop (for example, photon mapping for global illumination, non-photorealistic graphics, virtual reality, image-based modeling and rendering, shader languages for rendering, Web-based graphics) that are of broad interest and importance.

There is every evidence that SIGGRAPH will continue its strong presence in computer graphics and interactive techniques, although much of that presence is becoming focused in the SIGGRAPH symposia. Can the annual conference maintain the kind of cutting-edge research and development it had in its early days now that computer graphics is a universal commodity? Attendance and exhibitions are again increasing, and the excitement and opportunities for cross-disciplinary interaction are still strong, but there are concerns that the conference is losing its technical focus.

To see why ACM SIGGRAPH has evolved as it has, we need only look at its mission statement and values, part of SIGGRAPH’s strategic plan. In order to serve its mission, SIGGRAPH has recognized five fundamental values:

  • Excellence,
  • Integrity,
  • Volunteerism,
  • Passion, and
  • Cross-disciplinary interaction.

It has been important to consider these values in all SIGGRAPH activities. Goals, as stated in its strategic plan, range from fostering innovation and creative application of computer graphics to pursuing involvement from the entire worldwide community in computer graphics and interactive techniques. These values and goals are even more valid today. If the leadership follows them, they will guide SIGGRAPH well for the next 30 years.

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F1 Figure 1. Typical graphic CRT console from 1979—the BR90. Image courtesy of Carl Machover.

F2 Figure 2. “Spheres and Checkerboard” by Turner Whitted, created in 1978, published (as

F3 Figure 3. “Road to Point Reyes.” Courtesy of Ed Catmull, Pixar, Inc.

F4 Figure 4. “The Hungarians,” by Charles A. Csuri, 1989. Unix environment, lightjet on paper with laminate. Courtesy of Charles A. Csuri.

F5 Figure 5. “Swimming Pool,” by Paul Brown, 1996. Used by permission.

F6 Figure 6. (a) Audience and paddles in (b) Etch A Sketch® group activity before the Electronic Theater at SIGGRAPH 2006. The Etch A Sketch® product name and the configurations of the Etch A Sketch® product are registered trademarks owned by The Ohio Art Company. Reprinted with permission.

F7 Figure 7. An example of some recent ACM SIGGRAPH Symposia Proceedings. Courtesy of Stephen Spencer, ACM SIGGRAPH Director for Publications.

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    1. Carlson, W. An Historical Timeline of Computer Graphics and Animation. Nov. 20, 2006;

    2. Cunningham, S. The annual SIGGRAPH conference: 25 years of leadership in computer graphics and interactive techniques. Computer Graphics (Aug. 1998), 45;

    3. Evans, D. Keynote Address: Battelle computer graphics conference., Computer Graphics 8, 1 (1974), 5–11; 988476. 988478.

    4. Machover, C. Looking back to SIGGRAPH's beginnings. An interview with Sam Matsa. Computer Graphics (Feb. 1998), 25–27;

    5. van Dam, A. The shape of things to come. Computer Graphics (Feb.1998), 34–36;

    6. Williams, R. SIGGRAPH and the SIGGRAPH conference: The early days. Computer Graphics (Aug. 1998), 48–50; 281278.281318.

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