May 28, 2009

Libre Graphics Meeting 2009: Visions of the Future

Since 2006, developers and supporters of free software graphics applications have met annually for Libre Graphics Meeting (LGM), a conference and workshop where they can exchange ideas, catch up on recent advances, and collaborate on new technologies. The 2009 LGM was held May 6-9 in Montreal, Canada, at the École Polytechnique on the campus of the Université de Montréal. Around 100 programmers and users gathered each of the four days, for talks, demos, open discussions, and birds-of-a-feather sessions.

lgm2009-panoramas_400.jpgThe major applications in the Linux graphics suite--Gimp, Inkscape, Scribus, and Blender--each sent a delegation of developers and contributed a "state of the code" talk to the program, showcasing recent work and offering previews of upcoming releases. So, too, did less widely used graphics applications like panorama utility Hugin, vector editor sK1, and font tool FontMatrix, as well as related projects like the VIPS image processing library, the PiTiVi video editor, and the Open Font Library, which fosters the development of openly licensed fonts and is building an infrastructure to support them in modern Web browsers and applications.

What's New

The program also included presentations of ongoing research and new technology demonstrations. Michael Terry of ingimp presented several projects, including "kinematic templates," movable overlays that can assist artists by restricting drawing motion. The templates attenuate cursor motion mathematically, making it easier to freehand shapes or lines by reducing movements that diverge from the grid. He also reported on field tests studying how graphic design affects how much attention users pay to license agreements (hint: good design makes users pay attention to the content, which is the behavior open source projects want).

Andrew Mihal described his work with the Nona-GPU branch of the Nona panorama stitcher. Nona-GPU offloads the processing of distortion correction, photometric correction, and other calculations required to stitch together two images from the system CPU to the parallel processors of modern 3-D graphics cards. The result is a dramatic speedup in processing, but not without cost--so far, Mihal has not been able to overcome the slower bus speed of the GPU that makes moving data to and from the card siphon away a significant chunk of the time savings.

lgm2009-lighttwist_400.jpgSébastien Roy presented a talk about LightTwist, a system for running multi-projector immersive video displays using inexpensive hardware. LightTwist can automatically calibrate alignment and photometric differences between different projectors and blend them into a seamless display--from ultra-widescreen rectangles to immersive domes. The LightTwist team set up a live demo using nine off-the-shelf HD home theater projectors merged into a 360-degree cylindrical display.

The demo talks are not just for entertainment, though; they are useful to the projects involved. Several developers in the audience were interested in Markus Weiland's FacetZoom widget, for example, and members of the Blender team explored the possibility of working with LightTwist output.

The User Perspective

One of the unique facets of LGM is that it allows developers to meet with and hear from users. The users' point-of-view often sheds light on the direction software should take, not just in the short term (such as feature requests), but in the long term, such as the applications' support for complex standards like SVG and CSS, and what role the open source community should play in advocating for and participating in the standards process. Presenters like designer Ginger Coons and educator Alessando Rimoldi addressed these and other broad concerns, including the hotly-debated topic of how to make inroads in the professional graphic design world, where Adobe is the entrenched monopoly at every step: from the schools to the design firms, to the printers.

There were no easy answers to the questions posed by Jon Phillips (formerly of Creative Commons fame), either, who challenged the audience to look beyond the traditional desktop application paradigm. Web applications like Twitter and Google Docs are irreversibly becoming part of the software landscape, he said, and although some in the free software community (such as are exploring how to make network applications truly free, the graphics software arena is mistaken if it thinks it is immune to the challenge. He pointed to numerous examples of online graphics web-apps, such as Aviary and Picnik, and asked who in the free software realm was trying to compete.

Other talks highlighted successes in free graphics software, such as Stani Michiels' contest-winning design for a commemorative Dutch 5-Euro coin, a report from the Brussels-based studio Open Source Publishing, and Kaveh Bazargan's River Valley Technology, a company that uses free software to process the complex typesetting requirements of mathematical and scientific journals.

Room to Talk

lgm2009-gimp-dev_400.jpgIn addition to all of the presentations, though, LGM offers more for the developers in attendance--the opportunity and space to meet and get work done. Over the course of the conference, the meeting rooms reserved were routinely filled with small teams collaborating, both during scheduled down time and even while talks were going on. More than a dozen gathered for an afternoon Gimp birds-of-a-feather session. Twice, representatives from the Open Font Library held a font workshop, demonstrating hands-on how to work with free/libre font software like FontMatrix and the font editor FontForge.

LGM has alternated between North America and Europe for its host city each year. The 2009 meeting was another success, and plans have already started for the 2010 edition. Slides, audio, and videos of all the presentations are available online (in a choice of video file formats) at