Alex Kozlowski and Will Chang won passes to attend SIGGRAPH 2005, which runs from July 31 to August 4 in Los Angeles. The annual conference attracts top computer graphics talent from academe and the entertainment industry, and typically showcases breakthroughs that later turn up in movies and videogames.
The organizer of the UCSD competition, Computer Science and Engineering professor Henrik Wann Jensen, understands the power of SIGGRAPH. As a research associate at Stanford University he worked on a new technique for improving the look of skin and other translucent objects in computer graphics. Two years after demonstrating it at SIGGRAPH, the technique co-authored by Jensen was being used to render the character of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films. And one year later, Jensen was accepting an Academy Award for his work.
Realistic rendering is the Holy Grail of computer graphics: the ability to create scenes from scratch on the computer that look as real as the real thing. For the competition, Jensen invited students to render a realistic object or scene of their own choosing.
An external panel of experts picked the winners based on the quality of their rendered images and the technical difficulty. This year's judges included Pixar's Ronen Barzel and Mark Rotenberg of Bunkspeed Studios, as well as the winner of last year's competition, Wojciech Jarosz, who TA'd the course this spring.
"Alex and Will did a great job," says professor Jensen. "The judges had a hard time deciding this year, since both projects were impressive both artistically and technically."
Alex Kozlowski won the Grand Prize for Carousel at Night, inspired by Ray Bradbury's novel "Something Wicked This Way Comes." He achieved the stunning image (pictured at right) of a carousel with brightly-painted wooden horses by implementing a number of techniques that went beyond what was taught in the course. "I implemented a few different effects, such as glossy reflections, bump mapping, tone mapping, depth-of-field, and super-sampling," says Kozlowski, who did his undergraduate work at UC Berkeley. "I also modeled the carousel from scratch, which the judges seemed to like, though it's not a part of the rendering course."
The final scene features more than 1.5 million triangles -- including roughly 150,000 for each horse. Kozlowski also created a 3D bump map for the floor to achieve a cut wood effect. (Bump mapping relies on light-reflection calculations to create small bumps on the surface of an object in order to give it texture.) "I also used photon mapping to do all the indirect lighting in the scene," he noted. "Most of the brown color you see on the floor is due almost entirely to indirect lighting."
Environment maps involve deriving the lighting in a scene from actual photographs. "I think this technique brought an incredible amount of realism into the scene," says Chang, a graduate of Harvey Mudd College, who also used distribution ray tracing, path tracing, photon mapping and stratified super-sampling to construct his First Prize entry. "I have always felt that the primary strength of ray-tracing algorithms is their ability to simulate light reflecting and refracting accurately. Combined with real-world lighting, scenes containing even the simplest of primitives become very exciting."
Both graduate students are planning to get their Ph.D.s, but neither will rule out a detour into the entertainment industry. "I think it's a very exciting time to do research in computer graphics," enthuses Will Chang, who says he won't make a decision about going into industry until after grad school.
Grand Prize winner Alex Kozlowski is also undecided. He says he wants to do academic research, but "would really also like to spend some time in the movie industry."
Special-effects companies routinely hire computer scientists as they try to create and implement new ways to build effects that look as close to real life as possible. And as Kozlowski and Chang proved with their award-winning renderings, they now have the tools to do so -- whether they decide to "go Hollywood," or make their careers on campus instead..