Truth, Beauty, and the SIGGRAPH Meeting in San Diego

By Jason Socrates Bardi

San Diego Convention Center, July 30, 2003—The 2003 annual SIGGRAPH meeting in San Diego this year gave me the opportunity to attend a panel discussion that included Arthur Olson, professor of molecular biology at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI).

Downtown parking notwithstanding, I arrived at the San Diego Convention Center in time to attend the session, entitled "Truth Before Beauty: Guiding Principles for Scientific and Medical Visualization," and to explore the SIGGRAPH meeting.

SIGGRAPH is an acronym for a group interested in computer graphics and interactive techniques. It grew out of a small Association for Computing Machinery committee founded in the mid-1960s by a college professor and an IBM employee.

Not that I or many of the tens of thousands of attendees were thinking of this history when we showed up at the conference center. For most, this was not a conference of the past but one of the future—future technologies. And, in the maze of conference rooms and display halls I navigated after picking up my press credentials, the future did not disappoint. The technology of tomorrow seemed to be everywhere.

Inside one of the display halls, a sheet of cascading mist that you could walk through acted as a screen for projections. All manner of wired gloves and body suits coordinated movements of a virtual hand or animated figure with your own. Adult boys and adolescent men crowded around a lego trough, madly piecing together a death star. The open space in the back of the convention center overlooking the Coronado Bridge was an unofficial cell phone alley. One conference attendee sat facing the spectacular view—but only to cut down the glare on his laptop screen.

After finding the location of the special session on visual representation in the sciences, I made my way to the front of the dark and vast conference room. Inside, several hundred attendees awaited the beginning of the panel.

Terry Yoo of the National Institutes of Health, stood and began. "Where is the truth in our work?" he asked.

When it was Olson's turn to speak, he described his work representing the world you can't see—the molecular world. Throughout, he peppered his talk with examples of the effect of scientific images.

For instance, in 1865 German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann lectured to the Royal Society in London using croquet balls to demonstrate how various atoms combine to form simple organic compounds. Hofmann used black balls to represent carbon because carbon soot is black; he used red balls to represent oxygen because fire, which requires oxygen, is red; and he used blue balls to represent nitrogen since nitrogen was known to be a primary component of the atmosphere—the blue sky. This arbitrary use of colors to represent different atoms worked, said Olson, and we are still using it. One hundred and fifty years later, organic chemistry students use balls of the same colors to construct their models.

Olson went on to discuss how he represents the molecular world of proteins and the other tiny objects he studies—always asking the question, how useful are these visualizations?

According to Olson, scientists can use interactions with physical models to better understand the molecular world. One technology he has been working on is known as augmented reality and uses computer data and graphics to superimpose information onto a physical model.

To demonstrate, Olson clipped a tiny video camera with a firewire connection onto his shirt and plugged it into his laptop. He turned on the computer and held a physical model of HIV protease in front of the camera. The solid model was captured by the video camera, and, after he adjusted the autofocus and launched the software, the model appeared on the projection screen behind him. Olson had the computer superimpose an HIV protease inhibitor on the binding site of the protein, and, as he turned the model in his hands, the displayed inhibitor turned as well, keeping its correct orientation in the binding site.

While this technology is still in development, Olson believes that even as it exists the application could be a powerful tool for creating tangible interfaces for molecular biology. And it will only get better as technology improves, he said.

After the panel, outside the special session rooms, I walked by two elderly gentlemen extolling the virtues of "pint-sized" video projectors. By the door of the convention center stood two 30ish scruffy conference attendees holding a laptop between them.

"It's the sort of application you can use on your web site and that sort of thing," one of them was saying as he clicked.



TSRI Professor Arthur Olson speaks on his work representing the molecular world. Photo by Jason S. Bardi.