The world of computer graphics has a lot more to offer than 3D rendering techniques. At SIGGRAPH 2015, the largest conference in the field, we learned about biohacking, haptic technology, and even AI babies.

Since its beginnings as the first annual conference on computer graphics in 1974, SIGGRAPH has evolved to become the largest interdisciplinary gathering of researchers, artists, filmmakers, inventors, scientists, and business professionals who share an interest in interactive technologies, from do-it-yourself toys to virtual reality (VR).

What follows is a selection of some of the most fascinating things we heard, saw, or experienced when visiting this year’s edition in Los Angeles, from August 9 to 13. The list was compiled after donning dozens of VR goggles, meandering through hundreds of booths showcasing the latest computer animation and 3D printing techniques, and gawking from every angle at Bart Kresa and Shogyo Mujo’s imposing skull sculpture featuring projection mapping.

1. Bio is the new digital

In his keynote speech, Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, argued that today’s biotechnology feels very much like computers did 30 years ago, and that biotech will very soon affect everyone’s business in one way or another. As the cost of synthetizing DNA and tinkering with biological parts goes down, innovation moves from large institutions with authority and money to biohacking spaces, streets, and garages. “We’re seeing that across the board and it’s accelerating,” Ito said. “It’s going to be whiplash-like, because it’s happening faster than it did with the Internet.”


2. This virtual baby looks stunningly human

BabyX, as its creators from the Laboratory for Animate Technologies at the University of Auckland named her, is an interactive 3D-simulated child infused with biologically inspired artificial neural networks. The blond toddler sees you through your webcam, learns to mimic your facial expressions, reads simple words aloud, and smiles upon hearing you saying “good girl.” She looks adorably confused when she doesn’t understand something, occasionally babbling “da-da,” but brightens up when she get things right. Let’s see how things turn out when she grows up.

3. The future of multiplayer VR

How will virtual reality work in multiplayer settings? Real Virtuality, a project by Swiss research institute Artanim, gives you a glimpse at what it could be. Users are tracked by a full-body motion capture system, allowing them to physically move through a virtual environment—a pharoah’s tomb, a maze, a dance performance—in which they can see their own avatar’s limbs, touch objects, and interact with other players just as in real life.

All users’ movements, streamed with very low latency, exactly match their avatar’s in the simulation. The system is so quick that players can throw real objects at each other and successfully catch them while seeing only their 3D counterparts.

Real Virtuality was presented at swissnex San Francisco from August 17 to 21, 2015. The demo was a phenomenal success both at swissnex, where it attracted many of Silicon Valley’s industry leaders, and one week earlier at SIGGRAPH, where it generated one of the conference’s longest waiting lines.

4. Blow up your living room 

How to make the confined space of your living room feel infinite? Combine virtual reality, body motion tracking, and a smart brain-fooling algorithm. The University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, where Palmer Luckey used to work before he founded Oculus VR, developed a system that lets you explore a virtual environment by walking around a physical space, while making you believe that the walkable 3D scene is much larger than the real-world tracking area.

The trick here is that when you get close to a physical boundary, the screen asks you to turn around yourself. While doing this, the virtual and physical rotations occur at slightly different rates, which effectively reorients you away from the boundary.

5. Combining VR with real life actors

In the 360-degree immersive film Cape, directed by Belgian multimedia artist Eric Joris, spectators with head-mounted displays see a woman facing them, taking their hands, and asking them in a soft, French-accented voice to walk along with her. Meanwhile, in the physical world, a different but real woman who follows the film’s script holds their actual hands and guides them around the space. In what is perhaps the most mind-bending moment of the experience, the virtual and real women start to caress your cheek simultaneously. VR has never felt so thrilling. And a little awkward.


6. Give a handshake through Skype

The HaptoClone could one day let you touch your friend from the other side of the world. Invented at the University of Tokyo, this haptic interface can recreate, in real time, another person’s hand as a free-floating, tactile “hologram.” By reaching your hand towards your disembodied counterpart, you get a quite realistic feeling that the other fingers are pressing on yours, with enough detail to discern their actual contours. The device uses converged ultrasound waves to replicate 3D forces in mid-air. To complete the physical illusion, a mirror system creates a visual clone that makes you think you see the hand you’re touching.