'Total Recall' and a glimpse of the future


MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- The interview took place in the "Total Recall" conference room of Silicon Graphics Inc.'s headquarters, which shouldn't be confused with the conference rooms upstairs bearing the titles "Terminator II" or "Beauty and the Beast."

For the moment, Edward McCracken, SGI president and chief executive, wasn't discussing those films, for which his super-fast 3-D graphics machines generated special effects and animation, turning "morphing" into a generally recognized term.

He wasn't even talking much about "Jurassic Park," the blockbuster hit film that featured the skills of the SGI "paint boxes," other than to point out that "the smaller running dinosaurs (Gallimimus) were more demanding to do than those (the Velociraptors) that were terrorizing the children in the kitchen scene."

Mr. McCracken was far more interested in the Clint Eastwood film "In the Line of Fire," which I had just watched on my flight to California. That this was a drama employing SGI digital technology and not a science-fiction fantasy signaled another breakthrough.

Campaign footage used in that film about an assassination attempt on a U.S. president came directly from Bill Clinton's campaign. The SGI machines were able to deftly remove the Clintons from the crowd and parade scenes, replacing them with the film's actors. The naked eye can't detect that the scenes have been altered.

This saved the cost of having to re-create all those scenes with camera crews and an army of extras.

Mr. McCracken hopes to extend his technology to all feature films so the company will no longer have to endure long waits between intergalactic-style productions.

"The next logical step would be to use a computer to simulate all the shots needed in any movie, then go out and do the movie, saving money by not wasting so much film on shots that aren't used," explained Mr. McCracken.

A few years ago the military was the company's top customer, using the machines to visualize installations and equipment. A decline in defense spending made the entertainment market more attractive, with folks like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg fancying the high-tech machines.

Investment analysts are embracing the stock of 11-year-old Silicon Graphics, especially after recent agreements with Time Warner for designing an interactive multimedia TV demonstration and with Nintendo for next-generation home video games. Its 30 percent annual growth rate has prompted a number of securities firms, among them Prudential Securities and Montgomery Securities, to rate the stock "buy," despite the caveat that there is always some investment risk in such technology firms.

The Silicon Graphics Reality Engine, costing $99,950 and up, has the world's fastest graphics, able to process 320 million pixels (picture elements) a second, or three times as many as a quality PC. There also are models for less than $1 million that are making dramatic inroads into the supercomputer market.

The company's new Indigo desktop system, with digital color camera for video conferencing, costs $5,000, or $7,000 to $10,000 fully configured. It's an important entry into the low end of the market.

Hollywood accounts for about 10 percent of SGI's rapidly growing revenues, while the auto industry uses the machines to design new models and simulate crashes. Biotechnologists employ them to model molecules. During my visit to the headquarters, demonstrations of new graphics equipment were being made to small groups of industrial clients and television network executives.

That his company is well-positioned for the future information superhighway, which will make greater use of visuals, is an important consideration for Mr. McCracken, who spent 16 years with Hewlett-Packard before joining SGI.

"A network will be in place for two-way home or office video, which can be used for everything from mail to a walk-through of a proposed new building without leaving the office," he said, noting that with today's rapidly changing technology, the company that is faster will always win. "In the future, no one will have to travel as much because of these video opportunities to do shopping and the access to networks."

With 4,000 employees, the company has taken growth slowly so that it doesn't fall prey to the massive layoffs of so many high-tech firms. A walk through the assembly area indicates the exacting process in which technicians test, put together and package these units. It takes 14 hours, including testing, to HTC assemble an Indigo system.

In the office hallways, 3-D pictures seem to jump out at the casual visitor. These include depictions of an astronaut, the human inner ear and the human immunodeficiency virus.

"I believe there's room for an innovative, fun company that doesn't have to be old and boring," asserted Mr. McCracken, relaxing in the "Total Recall" conference room.

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