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Highlights from SIGGRAPH Asia & VRCAI, 2019

Over the past fortnight I’ve had the privilege to attend two international conferences which were co-located in Brisbane, Australia in November this year. There was way too much interesting stuff to write about; but here are some brief highlights of my experience!

Location & Venue

Getting there was a blast on Neuron Mobility Scooters. These have really taken Brisbane by storm ; amazing to see so many people embracing this method of transport.

Both conferences were flanked by Brisbane’s Southbank. Southbank offers gardens, a temple, a beach, plenty of cafes and restaurants made for lovely walks before, after and between talks.

The Brisbane Convention Centre is a heavy hitter for the city – very large, easy to navigate and well air-conditioned for the climate. Pictured here are lab mates from EPICentre, UNSW who were involved in teaching NVIDIA Deep Learning Institute workshops at the event.

Main reception area of Convention Centre.

The ‘Great Hall’ set up and looking slick for extra large Powerpoint presentations.

Demos & Tech

Demoscene was a funky addition to the conference ; showcasing a unique sub-culture of computer art and graphics. This group uses purist approaches to producing graphical content with old school devices with minimal computing power.

There were plenty of interactive exhibits to get hands on experience of VR/AR and other emerging technologies….

One of the highlights was the XR experience ‘Upload Not Complete’ by Peppercorns Interactive Media Art Inc., Taiwan. This tried to mimic the process of your consciousness being uploaded into the cloud!

VRCAI – presenting poster for my work on Holocity – see article

VRCAI – Trying out the Magic Leap with Weta Digital

VRCAI – Inception-like interactions with cityscapes through presentation: Don’t Panic: Recursive Interactions in a Miniature Metaworld by Andrew Bluff / Andrew Johnston (UTS)


I attended parts of two ‘ACM SIGGRAPH Frontiers Workshops’ which essentially discussed the implications of future of technologies which may significantly impact the field of ‘Computer Graphics & Interactive Techniques’ (and society more broadly..). These were:
1) ACM SIGGRAPH Frontiers Workshop on Computer Graphics for Autonomous Vehicles and Car Experience
2) ACM SIGGRAPH Frontiers Workshop on Truth in Graphics and the Future of AI-Generated Content

Truth in Graphics and the Future of AI-Generated Content – fireside chat from all speakers. Hao Li did a fantastic job navigating the challenging topics of the workshop and fostering positive discussion.

Alexandre de Brebisson, Lyrebird, Canada speaks about their company (Lyrebird) – the positives of cloning voice and the ethical dilemmas their company had to deal with early on.

Diana Arellano, Mackevision, Germany – on making autonomous vehicles safe for everyone through graphics and simulation techniques.


The keynotes were all exceptional for both conferences. I will always remember these talks where all of them reflected on their careers, past works, lessons learned and had strong messages for the future.

Keynote: VRCAI, from Sol Rogers on past experience of 15 years in digital animation, VFX and emerging technology and some thoughts for the future.

Keynote: VRCAI, from Jacki Morie on 30 years of researching & creating meaningful VR experiences.

Keynote: SIGGRAPH Asia, from Inigo Quilez on “Why Do I Create Images with Mathematics – A Journey of Innovating in Tech”.

Keynote: SIGGRAPH Asia, from Jeffrey Shaw on “Making Things Making Meaning – Frontiers in New Media”. I particularly really liked their work on preserving martial arts techniques.

Keynote: SIGGRAPH Asia, from Donna Cox on many things including the visualisation of galactic-scale scientific data. This group does truly amazing stuff with communicating data about our universe and huge geographic phenomena to a general audience.


Computer Animation Festival – The Ostrich Politics short animation had some poignant parallels to our society and scientific fact ; brilliantly done!

Real-Time Live – how amazing are Air Sticks?

An evolution of terms used to describe urban planning and computation since the 1960s (half a century!)

Google Scholar, while not perfect, can give a free and quick way to understand which terms are increasing in relevance in your field.

The following images summarise the volume of search results for key terms that can be used in the field of urban planning and computing. Hopefully this can, for someone, maximise likelihood of that fuzzy feeling at a conference or event (or your written text) that SOMEONE knows what you’re talking about. While some terms of have gained significant traction of the past half a century, some other new terms are catching up quite rapidly. Some terms have not grown so fast at all. What new terms will pop up in the next 10 years? I will leave it up to you to decide!

Click for large version..

Search terms, in order of relevance in 2010’s …
“Transport Model”
“Geographic Information System”
“Smart City”
“Big Data” and (“urban” or “city”)
Virtual Reality and (“Urban” or “City” )
“Augmented Reality” and (“Urban” or “City” )
“Virtual World” and (“Urban” or “City” )
Dashboard and (“urban” or “city” or “building”)
“Cellular automata” AND (“urban” or “city”)
“Urban Model”
Agent-based model AND (“urban” or “city”)
(“Artificial Intelligence” or “Machine learning” or “Neural network”) AND (“urban” or “city”)
“Spatial Decision Support System”
“Urban Computing”
“Urban sensing”
“Urban Informatics”
“Planning Support System”
“Digital Urban” or “Digital City”
“Digital Twin” and (“Urban” or “City”)

Highlights from 2nd International Conference on Urban Informatics, Hong Kong

Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) Campus (Background: Jockey Club Innovation Tower, Zaha Hadid Architects)

This week I had the pleasure of attending the 2nd International Conference on Urban Informatics, run by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The conference had an impressive scope of keynotes from various universities such as MIT, UCL, Shenzhen University and presentations of research in conference streams. It was also an ambitious event – further announcing a new international Informatics society, a book series, a set of new courses at PolyU and new journal to follow up the week’s activities.

One of the conference keynotes (Carlo Ratti, MIT Senseable City Lab)

The conference stream presenters ranged from Masters students to experienced Professors and professionals with a very large breadth of topics in ‘Urban Informatics’ spanning themes of AI, Urban Models, Emerging Technologies, Environmental Monitoring and Remote Sensing techniques. In particular, themes from the sessions I attended seemed to often focus on using both supervised machine learning methods and unsupervised clustering methods to understand variety urban systems – from mobility to health.

Some impressive LiDAR technology on show – creating extremely detailed live 3D models… very science fiction! (SkyNet anyone?)

The following presentations were my personal highlights.

Take a Look Around: Geographic Knowledge Discovery for the Case Study of London Streetviews by Dr. Stephen LAW, The Alan Turing Institute and University College London, UK

Stephen presented a comprehensive suite of research on using Google Streetview data and AI (convolutional neural networks) towards automated ways to quantify urban design elements at a large, detailed scale across cities. In particular, it was really impressive to see aesthetic / human experiential notions of active and passive frontages able to be identified en-masse across cities – which could potentially have great impacts as a tool for designers and planners to create more vibrant, happy and healthy environments.

Quantifying aspects of urban design on a massive scale is crucial to help develop a deeper understanding of urban designs elements that contribute to the success of a public space. In this study, we further develop the Street-Frontage-Net (SFN), a convolutional neural network (CNN) that can successfully evaluate the quality of street frontage as either being active (frontage containing windows and doors) or blank (frontage containing walls, fences and garages).

More articles by this author:

Law, S., Seresinhe, C. I., Shen, Y., & Gutierrez-Roig, M. (2018). Street-Frontage-Net: urban image classification using deep convolutional neural networks. International Journal of Geographical Information Science, 1-27.

Law, S., Shen, Y., & Seresinhe, C. (2017, November). An application of convolutional neural network in street image classification: the case study of london. In Proceedings of the 1st Workshop on Artificial Intelligence and Deep Learning for Geographic Knowledge Discovery (pp. 5-9). ACM.

A 4D Spatio-Temporal Approach to Modelling Land Value Uplift from Rapid Transit in High Density and Topographically-Rich Cities by Dr. Christopher Donald HIGGINS, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, HK

Christopher proposes new approaches to accessibility analysis and predicting land-value uplift which is more sensitive to volumetric and topographically complex cities, such as Hong Kong. As well as showing relationships between access to stations and property value, this work provides innovative toolbox in order to tackle understanding travel time which typically does not thoroughly consider both slope and building height of first and last mile travel to stations.

Read more:
Higgins, C. D. (2019). A 4D spatio-temporal approach to modelling land value uplift from rapid transit in high density and topographically-rich cities. Landscape and Urban Planning, 185, 68-82.

“The present research utilizes spatio-temporal methods in a quasi-experimental research design to examine changes in property values associated with pedestrian accessibility to the West Island Line heavy rail extension in Hong Kong. Several innovations in methods and techniques are proposed that respond to the econometric challenges involved in conducting research in high density, topographically-rich cities. Of these, the paper incorporates landscape topography throughout its estimation process, including the calculation of slope-aware measures of walkable accessibility on a 3D pedestrian network and proposes a new Spherical Distance Weights method for capturing horizontal and vertical spatial association among observations in 3D space. Finally, these weights are combined with measures of temporal distance for a 4D approach that accounts for relations among observations in space and time.”

See the author’s full article at here

See also: Higgins, C.D. & P.S. Kanaroglou. A Latent Class Method for Classifying and Evaluating the Performance of Station Area Transit-Oriented Development in the Toronto Region. Journal of Transport Geography. 52, 61-72. DOI: 10.1016/j.jtrangeo.2016.02.012

A Systematic Tracing of Temporal and Spatial Boundaries of Places with High Concentration of Human Activity to Identify Popular Non-Work Destinations by Prof. Roberto Ponce LOPEZ, Tecnologico de Monterrey, Mexico

Roberto presented an impressive suite of analysis forming part of his Doctoral work ways to mine and classify large social data sets to more meaningfully understand what people do in cities outside of work (which still remains a primary function of many urban models!). Singapore formed an interesting Case Study.

“Research uses data from Google Place API to characterize the built environment of Singapore, building a typology of place that differentiates between shopping malls, strips of retail, food markets and large commercial areas. The method of analysis relies on spatial clustering and k-medoids clustering.”

See his personal blog for more detail on Roberto’s work.

The City

Hong Kong itself was a highlight of the conference. For any urbanist, Hong Kong is one of the most unique vertical cities in the world. Its form and structure become even more interesting the more one walks around and attempts to comprehend how it has all been stacked together in such a small space. The unique mix of cultures living in the city over time makes for a fascinating exploration of art, food, museums and architecture .. indeed complementing the many physical levels the city has on offer.

Yick Cheong Building – five incredibly dense residential buildings stacked closely to one another

Duk Ling – traditional Chinese Junk boat ride on the Harbour

View from Victoria Peak, highest hill on HK Island

Murakami vs Murakami Exhibit, Tai Kwun Contemporary

Didier Jaba Mathieu’s work at the Tung Wah Centenary Garden, Queen’s Road East in Wan Chai

Vegetarian restaurant, Nan Lian Garden

Pavilion of Absolute Perfection, Nan Lian Garden

Thanks for having us Hong Kong PolyU – looking forward to seeing where you can take Urban Informatics in future… ๐Ÿ™‚

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