Truth, Beauty, and the SIGGRAPH Meeting in San Diego
By Jason Socrates
San Diego Convention Center, July 30, 2003The 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
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 futurefuture 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 viewbut 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 seethe 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 atmospherethe 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 studiesalways
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
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
"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.