Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Siggraph Asia 2015 - Overall Trip Report

Last week, I spent a wonderful week in Kobe, Japan attending Siggraph Asia 2015! I was there to present my first paper at an international conference - "Grease Pencil: Integrating Animated Freehand Drawings into 3D Production Environments", staying at the Portopia Hotel.

The paper can be downloaded from the first link above. Please use the ACM DL version one, since that's the official one which keeps count of the download stats ;)

The conference was held in a mixture of venues around the hotel where I was staying:
  • Most conference talks/sessions were held in the International Conference Center building, which was located across the courtyard from the hotel, and accessible via a covered walkway.
  • Registration, Posters, and the Exhibition (i.e. trade show) were held across the road at the International Exhibition Hall No. 2
  • Keynote #1 and Reception were held in the Portopia Hotel (Portopia Hall, and Grand Banquet room respectively)
  • Computer Animation Festival (Production Sessions, Electronic Theatre) were held in the hall on the ground floor of the conference center (entrance off the courtyard)
Apparently this was the largest Siggraph Asia to date, with around 7000 attendees coming for the conference/exhibition. I don't know the actual figures as I don't think they actually released those, but this was the ballpark figure they were claiming in earlier press releases.

Summary of Events
Here's a summary of what I was up to on each day during the trip. I intend to have some detailed posts about some of these sessions/activities later when I get around to going through and uploading my notes and photos from the trip.

Since technically photography/videos during the conference sessions weren't allowed, there isn't much in the way of imagery I can show, other than a few "I was there" shots of the titlecards and the rooms in general - there really isn't much risk to people's copyright from those I should think!

October 31
* 6pm - Leave home for the airport.

* 8pm Departure on NZ554 from Christchurch to Auckland. Air New Zealand A320.

* 9:30pm arrival at Auckland Airport. Terminal transfer bus from Domestic to International was straightforward. Injured my thumb getting through security (my laptop now has some some bloody streaks from this incident!); the pain only abated halfway through the flight after getting some sleep.

* 11pm Departure on CZ306 from Auckland to Guangzhou. China Southern 777 Economy.

November 1 - Day 0
* 5am Arrived in Guangzhou. There was some early morning drizzle. Made mistake of waiting for flight near gate (A02) --> squalid, drab + crowded conditions, while being marinated in a thick soup of second hand smoke, and starting to slowly melt even at that hour.

* Flew to Osaka (KIX) on CZ389 - Scheduled 8:30, Boarded 9:15, Takeoff 10am (Air traffic delays). China Southern A321. Premium Economy.

* 1pm arrival in Osaka (KIX). Promptly managed to ram (fore)head into overhead lockers twice while trying to grab my stuff.

* Queued at immigration from 1:15 to 2:30.  It was a very impressive sight (10 lanes open, but a square region in front of those filled entirely with people in a snaking queue). It's a pity that no photos were allowed, as this was off the charts orderly but crazy, and nothing like the promo pictures they show of the area!

* Took Airport Limousine bus to Sannomiya, Kobe (Journey Time: Approx 1 hour)

* 30 min spent trying to find station for hotel's shuttle bus (Hint: Cross the road via the pedestrian footbridge via the blue lifts, get back to ground level, follow the line of busses towards the green "Mint" building, enter the gray terminal area, and find door number 8 - i.e. one at the end).

* 4pm board the hotel shuttle, after just missing the first one (overcapacity).

* 4:30pm Check in, followed by first shower in over a day (relaxing!)

* Dinner after Cafe Soco (Level 2, Portopia).

* Short 30 min walk around the hotel, finding the conference center, and enjoying the lobby.

* 10pm - An early night, after a long day.

November 2 - Day 1
* 8am - Breakfast at Cafe Soco

* 8:30/8:40am - Rushed off to Registration

* 9:30am - Registration finally finished (long, long queues - 3 lanes for preregistered attendees, 2 for walk-in, and 2 for everyone else. All of these lanes were fed by a long snaking queue that folded on itself several times)

* 9:40am - Walk back to Conference Center, to try and find the Technical Briefs room (501). When I got there, I found that I couldn't get in to the room (NB: I only later found that afternoon that the entrance was out the side instead), so ended up missing the first session that I'd been intended to attend ("Image and Video Processing"). Apart from some interesting papers being presented then, it would've been good to get a feel for the presentations and audience before anything else.

* 10am - Headed to Speaker Preparation Room (Level 4) instead to test my equipment, and make sure everything would work. Ended up futzing around with my new/unused HDMI to VGA adapter (doh! the sound needed to be plugged into this adapter instead of the laptop's normal socket).

Another major challenge was figuring out how to arrange my stuff on the podium, and to get everything to play nice with the 4:3 displays. I ended up using the cheap Logitec mouse I'd brought along as backup, as I was having too much trouble trying to use my Wacom tablet under these circumstances  (i.e. 1) it wouldn't fit on the podium, 2) MS made it so that the pen would ink by default, making it impossible to play the videos, and 3) I was having enough troubles trying to force Powerpoint to not use presenter mode, so that I could see what I was doing in Blender when I switched to it). Didn't want to spend too long with the laptop powered up, in case it ran down the battery and the adapters wouldn't work for some or other reason (including frying the machine as soon as I plugged it in).

According to the Japanese girls helping out with the AV stuff in the speaker prep room, Daniel's "For You" short was "kawaii" ;)

* 10:30am - After getting my stuff sorted, I went having a poke around to see what sessions I could get into. Discovered that there was apparently a schedule booklet that everyone else had a copy of (and which the registration staff had missed when packing the conf bag). Cue another quick dash across the walkways up/down stairs, over the to registration and back. Phew!

* 10:45am - Make it back just in time to catch the end of the opening to the Symposium on High Performance Computing and Visualisation (in 502 - i.e. next to where I'd been originally intended to go that morning). At one stage, I'd wanted to attend some of these sessions, but had had to flag it to get into the other things I'd wanted to see, so in this case, serendipity worked out quite well!

Prof Kwan-Liu Ma's (UC Davis) talk about his work on scientific visualisation was quite interesting. This is one of the talks I'll discuss in more detail in a later post.

* 12:30pm - 2pm - Break for lunch. Headed to Shukei-En (3rd from top).

* 2-3: Nap back in hotel room

* 3-3:45 - Prep for my talk

* 4-6: In room 501, giving talk and listening to other presentations. More on these later.

* 8-10:  Dinner at Portopia Sky Lounge. The views up here were absolutely stunning!

November 3 - Day 2
* 9am - Opening keynote with Ronnie del Carmen @ Portopia Hall

* 11am - 12:30pm - Color and Sketching Papers Session  <--- very interesting work was presented here, including the Autocomplete Paper that's been doing the rounds

* 1pm - 1:30pm - Lunch at Cafe de Crie  (there was quite a long/slow moving queue outside). AFAICT, Steve Marschner (i.e. the hair shader guy) was having lunch just 2 tables down ;)

* 2:15pm - 4pm - Panel about the production of Sanjay's Super Team (including 2 screenings of the short)

* 4pm - 4:30pm - Roaming around the Exhibition, Art/Emerging Tech demos, and Papers

* 4:30pm - 5pm - Exploring the area around the hotel, and getting some nice late-afternoon shots

* 7pm - 9pm - Reception/Dinner in Grand Banquet Hall  (Buffet style)

November 4 - Day 3
* 9am - 11am - Sightseeing taxi tour of Kobe (Venus Bridge, Kitano district, Tor Road, Harbourland Park)

* 11am - 12pm  - Lunch @ La Maison - Pizza + Cake

* 1pm - 2pm - Doing some light hacking (and photo transfers) in hotel lobby

* 2pm - 4pm - Renderman Art and Science Fair

* 5pm - 7pm - Short trip out to Sannomiya for dinner (Pasta de Pasta)

* 7pm - 9pm - Electronic Theatre Screening

November 5 - Day 4
* 9am - 11am - Good Dinosaur Production Panel. Had an interesting chat with the team afterwards.

* 11am - 12pm - Quick lunch @ La Maison (again) - Rice Omelet + Beef Patty

* 12pm - 5pm - Taxi trip to see Himeji Castle (UNESCO Heritage Site), the adjacent Japanese Gardens, and the Akashi bridge (4km long - the longest suspension bridge in the world!)

* 7pm - 9:30pm - Dinner in Sannomiya, walkabout in SOGO, and finding station/tickets for Airport Limousine Bus

November 6 - Day 5
* 8am - 9am - Buffet breakfast at Sky Lounge. A whole bunch of ACM Siggraph VIP's were seated 2-3 tables away, and were discussing various "interesting" topics (including the situation re-availability of papers for download on the ACM DL)

* 9am - 9:30am - Buying some souvenirs from the hotel drugstore/giftstore (including 2 hotel mascot birdies - I also wanted one a big one too, but they didn't seem to have stock of that; unfortunately, they were closed by the time we got back the previous night, so had to rush to cram it in that morning). Hotel checkout.

* 9:30am - 10am - Hotel shuttle to Sannomiya to catch the Airport Bus

* 10am - 11am - Airport Limousine bus to Osaka.  Finally realised that even that airport is another man-made island!

* 11am - Check in @ Kansai Airport  (Check in girl seemed kindof new to the job - she was heavily consulting the thick (!) instruction manual, and got quite grumpy ("no can do! no can do!") that a group of passengers travelling together were unhappy to be seated separately in middle seats (Crappy airline! More on this later, but apparently quite a few other travellers had similar problems with this company's arrangements!)

* 11:30am - 12:30pm - Shopping @ Kansai Airport. Heaps of stores selling interesting stuff here, along with quite a few nice restaurants.

* 1:30pm - 6pm - Flight CZ390 from Osaka to Guangzhou. China Southern A321. Premium Economy. Deplaned without even a jetbridge this time (i.e. via one of those rickety rolling stairwells).

* 6pm - 12am - 6 hours of torture. 29 deg, high humidity (it was so bad that just sitting there, you'd be sweating constantly), nothing much good to eat (and without high prices + being ripped off), uncertainty whether the flight was even happening (i.e. it wasn't on the boards till after 10pm; before that, quite a few flights were being delayed/cancelled due to weather), rock hard seats that made your butt hurt if seated for too long, and murderous golf carts (that would silently zigzag behind pedestrians at high speed). (NB: Contrary to other reports, wifi does work, but you have to scan your passport at a particular booth running Windows XP, before they will grant your 5 hours access to stuff that's not blocked in that country).

On plus side, finally got to have fun sitting in an airport terminal coding! (The first time I saw people doing this was back in LAX 10 years ago, and I've been wanting to give it a shot myself ever since)

* 12am - 1am - Waiting downstairs for boarding. Extremely crowded and more squalid than before, even at that hour of the day. Gate got changed from A02 to A05 - Probably since the flight at A02 to some African nation had delays. However, boarding for the KLM (?) flight to Amsterdam just kept going on and on and on (late people were rushed out every 5-10 minutes, then they'd wait, and then a few more would be rushed in, etc.  and this is after they'd called us to line up to board already). After 30 mins of delays, were finally got to head out...

* 1am (?) - Flight departed for Auckland. China Southern 777, economy. Middle seats in tail section of plane. (Flanked by two Indians, who both had special Halal meals, and liked to sleep with blankets over their heads with their shoes off).  I've got some more comments to make about this flight - although it went better than the first, some things need to be mentioned...

November 6
* 4:30pm (!) Arrival in Auckland, 2 hours after getting "breakfast", and having flown for 6-7 hours in broad daylight by that stage. Felt quite cheated that somehow, an entire day had vanished...

* 5:30pm - Finally got out of biosecurity screening (I really don't give a f*** about this circus... to hell with the primary industries of this country... and from next month, the govt wants to impose a levy on passengers to pay for this timewasting crap to keep these folk employed... gah!)

* 5:45pm - Air NZ check-in @ international terminal was painless. Pity though that it was too late for the bags, and we had to lug them across ourselves.

However, finding the shuttle bus across to the other terminal was problematic (common sentiment among everyone that day). Unclear/missing signage, lack of clarity over what the busses look like, and a lack of info about when they would appear.  Ahh Auckland... you still haven't learnt since my past visits, have you?!

* 6:30pm - Boarding/takeoff for Air NZ 557 to Christchurch. A320.

Departure was delayed 5 mins on the ramp due to a freshly landed plane having steering troubles (so got to see a retro yellow fire engine head out to tow it off). Nice departure into the clouds. Got quite a scenic (if bumpy) approach into Christchurch, with dramatic lighting over the Southern Alps. Christchurch however was covered in a weird low-hanging gray haze.

* 7:30pm - Home at last. Slightly chilly. Strong smell of garden peas in the air for some reason...  All shops in airport closed (despite flights still scheduled till 9).

Notes About Each Day
* Day 0, 0 = Travel and Settling In

* Day 1 = "Talk Day": Registration, Presenting, and Learning that Laptop + Camera in the same backpack (+ stairs and long walks in a rush) = Exhaustion + Buckets of Sweat

* Day 2 = "Enjoying Conference". Attending talks, exhibition, and reception.  (National holiday in Japan)

* Day 3 = "Kobe Sightseeing" + Pixar (+ disappointment that I was not going to get to start building my teapot collection) + Electronic Theatre Screening

* Day 4 = Pixar (informative talk about Good Dino) + "Japan Sightseeing"

* Day 5 = "Leaving Kobe :("

* Day 6 = "Stranded in Transit" + "Where did 1 day go?" + "Glad to be home"

Overall Impressions
It was great getting a taste of what attending an international conference is like. Although I ended up missing a few sessions I really would've liked to attend (mostly on day 1), I really enjoyed what I did attend - even some that I wasn't sure about initially. I do have to note though that IMO, some things were not that well handled by the event organising company (Koelnmesse - or should that be "Koel Birdbrained and Messy").

Kobe was great, though it's a pity that I didn't get to see as much of it as I would have liked. The weather was really nice for most of my stay, except on the first day (when I needed to get across to registration) when it rained. I am a bit annoyed though that I misread the weather - I really should have trusted my instincts and packed for "Asian autumn" (i.e. based on my own experiences in HK around this time of the year, where 2-5 degrees can be added to any reported temperatures due to the humidity) vs "Kobe is chilly" (as a friend had said - that said, they were from another part of Asia ;)

Japan is a very nice and interesting place. Contrary to Mum + Dad's initial experiences with Japan (which can be best described as somewhat negative), I really liked the place. Definitely a lot more than can be said of places where Mainland Chinese can be found in large numbers (!). A lot of things in this place are quite neat, pleasant, and "different" (but in a good way). I was particularly impressed by a lot of their engineering prowess (I've got a whole post of examples of this for later).

That said, perhaps the single greatest downside or cultural shock you'll encounter is that in Japan, 99% of the people only speak Japanese (and of those that do speak English, you will still struggle to communicate at the best of times). You'll also find that while signage will often have some English (for key places), most menus and smaller signs are in Japanese only (with a small smattering of English for things like "Tea, Coffee, Hot/Cold" or common places like "Sannomia" and not much else!). Something else that takes a while to get used to, is that the Japanese have a tendency to stand in front of you making long speeches in Japanese about something or other - this was particularly noticeable with the bus drivers, who loved standing in front of people and doing this everytime before they drove or picked up passengers (even if it would've been quite obvious that no-one on board had any clue what they were saying ;)  However, while all this is shocking in the first day or two, you quickly do come to start expecting and anticipating this, to the point where you can probably start guessing (most of the time) what it may be that they're talking about (at least in general terms).

Also, what may have made things better was that we stayed at the Portopia Hotel. This is located on Port Island (one of several man made islands!) they have around the place, and located right beside all the conference venues. I was very surprised when we arrived at just how flash it looked - definitely a lot shinier than even the Harbour Grand Kowloon or the now demolished Parkroyal Christchurch. The Portopia Hotel was very much an integral part of the whole convention precinct. As such, I suspect that some of the facilities may have ended up being more "international" than "Japanese" styled; that said, at times, there was still the nagging feeling that they were more used to catering to the local market more (i.e. see comments above re the use of Japanese everywhere). Particular highlights of this hotel were:
   1) The stunning views of Kobe - If you're in the main tower, or go to one of the restaurants up at the top of the tower, this is one really compelling reason to stay here

   2) The lobby - Whether it is to just sit around and relax, to enjoy the warm inviting atmosphere + architecture (cavernous space!), or to have a poke around on your laptop or something in an appealing public space, the lobby is a really nice place to be

   3) The choice of restaurants - There are quite a lot of good restaurants here (though be warned that some of these are quite pricey)

   4) The architecture - Portopia Hall in particular was really nice. The lobby and surrounding areas too. Another neat feature was the elevator circle, which really resembles the Department of Mysteries (HP fans will know what I mean if you've see it in action).

   5) Free shuttle service to/from Sannomiya - This is a nice service, though it can get quite crowded. Some interesting Japanese engineering on show here (for when the bus gets full). Japanese driver's speech is always a mystery, while the audio loop which plays on boarding/arrival has that Japanese lilt to it which tends to get into your head after listening to it a few too many times ;)

   6) Taxi tours booking service - Had some great trips with a grandpa and his black prius taxi. 

   7) Working Wifi - In both hotel rooms AND the lobby. It was so nice being away at the hotel and being able to still check up on things for a change. It's a pity that I couldn't get Japan's free public wifi (via Softbank) to work though due to some stupid limitations my carrier put on the sim (though I got roaming working for the first time ever on this trip), which meant that I had no wifi when in the conference venues. Apparently Spark/Telecom NZ works fine with NTT Docomo (IIRC), while only Vodafone NZ works fine with Softbank.

Finally, I should also add a brief word here about the Rugby World Cup finale (All Blacks vs Wallabies, defending champs vs arch foe). This was being held overnight, in the middle of my flight to Guangzhou. I remember waking up in the middle of the night going, "gee... the match is on now... wonder how it's going/hope the AB's win... dammit... think happy thoughts.. at least I'm not able to watch at all, so cannot jinx them, as it seems I'm apt to do with all NZ sports teams I watch live ;)".

As I was leaving Christchurch, I thought to myself: "Whatever happens tonight/this week, when I return, some things will be 'different' when I return (even if only on a symbolic level, not in terms of anything practical)"
   * The result of the match could have gone either way: A) All Blacks win (this happened) = "All Blacks are now the first team to win 2 back to back titles", vs B) All Blacks lose (thankfully not) = "4 More Years... The AB's choked on the world stage again to our arch foe => They cannot seem to win a RWC away from home soil" => I return to a world of collective national depression and naval gazing. Fortunately the former happened, as I from my hotel room as soon as I got wifi working. The celebrations though I didn't see (by the time I got back, it seems that life had well and truly moved on again ;)

   * Likewise, on a personal/professional level, I hope this trip marks the start of a new era/new beginnings. Watch out world! I'm just getting started ;)

1 comment:


    It is sooo nice that you are taking your time to develop this excellent GreasePencil tool.

    I'll be waiting for the tutorials!