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LGM 2009: Conclusions

Time to sum up my feelings about Libre Graphics Meeting (LGM) 2009 and set targets for the next twelve months, inspired and encouraged by Jon Phillips.

LGM2009: what went well

  • Venue: Excellent support, good infrastructure, and extremely useful recordings of the conference (thank you, Kaveh Bazaragan). The offer by Louis Desjardins to hold LGM regularly in this setting should be considered seriously. Kaveh’s offer to host us in India is very attractive as well. Never been to that part of the world…
  • Format: Single track is just right! Stick to the clock. Session length appropriate. Good mix of sessions, lightning talks, BoF. Plenty of opportunities to get things done and network.
  • Attendance: A good mix of artists and developers.

LGM2009: what could have been better

  • Echo in the local media (I tried to get noticed with the Ultra Wide Views exhibition but strictly speaking I’m not local).
  • Interaction with the local public (my impression is that there was less local public than at LGM2007).
  • Outreach beyond the world of Free graphics. Everybody has imaging devices nowadays and we need to convey to them that this software is for them too.

To do for LGM2010

  • Decide on the venue ASAP. This is the single most important issue on the critical path to leading to LGM2010. The discussion on the mailing list seems to have fade out?
  • Reach out to the general public! Ginger Coons suggested tupperware parties? Let’s show schoolkids that they need not pirate software to be creative. Let’s share our creations with the general public. Let’s get the media buzz going. Concentrate a few speeches geared at the general public on the Saturday. Make the exhibition last longer than the conference, with the conference being its culminating point. Entice the general public to learn about free graphics.
  • Keep the buzz going – my feeling is that there is not enough going on in between conferences. I’d like to see more activity on the mailing list. We need more fund raising in these difficult times.

Hugin at LGM2009

Lucky circumstances had it that I could offer free lodging to those of our team that were attending. Being that close was a unique opportunity to discuss the challenges ahead, both immediate (with two of the new Google Summer of Code students due to start coding soon) and in the longer term (with Andrew Mihal, Pablo d’Angelo, Jim Watters). While I would prefer to focus on the creative process rather than on the tool-making process, we are still at a stage where tools require more attention than I’d like.

  1. The first exhibition of panoramic artwork was a good start. It provides a stepping stone for a V2 at LGM2010 (or 2011?). I’ll summarize key learnings at some point.
  2. Our tool-making process is not ticking regularly enough yet. We’ve discussed a fix for our release cycle (we do not subscribe to ffmpeg’s philosophy and we are far behind compared with the best practices of the Libre Graphics pack). Pablo had a good idea for a new naming convention. Hugin-0.8 is due very soon. After that we’ll initiate the changes.
  3. Our organization needs to grow to the next level. Here again, we’ll be looking at best practices in the Libre Graphics world and shamelessly copy you.

To do for Hugin 2010

  1. Get more artists to physically attend the conference and present their work. I liked Stani’s presentation; an inspiration for next year. I did not really plan jumping in for Tom and presenting his new tool. Next year we shall also have at least one tutorial session to introduce people (possibly from the general public) to the joys of panorama photography.
  2. Deliver the tools to the users at a faster pace. Users have been waiting almost a year to have convenient access to tools introduced during Google Summer of Code 2008. We intend to shorten that time with the current crop of Google Summer of Code projects.
  3. Structure our organization to better handle donations (foundation? ideally piggy-back on something existing rather than reinvent the wheel) and go more systematically about recruiting which is currently also not diversified enough.
  4. Help another small Libre Graphics related project to jump on the bandwagon. This year Hugin made the conscious decision to allocate one of its Google Summer of Code slots to Lighttwist. I believe that giving a lift to like-minded projects and helping them establish reputation as recipients of student slots within the GSoC universe is in the common interest. For 2010, should Google elect to run the program again and should we be accepted as a mentoring organization again, I already spoke with Rafal Mantiuk. He would love to have a student work on pfstools. Whether I can pull my friends at Hugin in this direction remains to be seen – the connection between Lighttwist and Hugin is a more obvious one than between pfstools and Hugin. But I am confident that this is of strategic interest to Libre Graphics as a whole, beyond Hugin.

Umbrella Organization

One fact that can’t go unnoticed is the complete absence from LGM of one of the biggest Free Software sponsors. And I am not talking money. Leslie Hawthorn of the Google Open Source Program Office was a two hours drive away, in Ottawa, at BSDCan. Why couldn’t LGM attract Google Open Source Program Office to hold a presentation? What can we do to improve this, and maybe even convince Google to return to be a full sponsor of LGM like it was in 2008?

I think one of the issues is that we’re still too splintered. Libre Graphics would be better off if we can set up some sort of umbrella organization to handle our common interests.

  • Umbrella organizations such as Gnome, KDE, FreeBSD and others are heavy weights of the Google Summer of Code program. The logic is simple: Leverage. Google leverages the mentoring organizations to manage projects. The more student projects a mentoring organization takes care of, the more attractive it is for Google to work with it. An umbrella organization as an added layer makes the program scale better. It reduces the strain on Google’s resources for a given quantity of students while providing the necessary quality assurance. I’ve added a feature request in that sense to Melange’s tracker. An umbrella organization could allocate slots within projects that taken alone would have little chance to be selected as mentoring organization, and many Libre Graphics projects qualify in this category.
  • Hugin is not the only project that needs a formal way to handle money. Other projects have already been down that road. Why reinvent the wheel? We could learn from their best practices regarding tax exempt status and other issues. Or even better: why start a foundation if there are existing ones? We’ll be looking not just to learn from existing foundations, but also to explore whether there is a natural fit for us to join forces. Pablo agrees that joining an existing foundation is the best option for us, and my wish would be to join an umbrella foundation for Libre Graphics.
  • I hope I’m not the only one who wants to help other small Libre Graphics projects on the bandwagon. As a team we can help more efficiently.
  • Last but not least, the umbrella organization could give a base to the Libre Graphics teams organizing the local meetings. As such, we already have a candidate leader for the umbrella organization: Louis Desjardins has done a terrific job at LGM2007 and LGM2009 – plus all the support he has given to the LGM2008 organization. I did not discuss this endorsement with him and I hope my proposition does not  anger him: Louis for president!

Academic Track

One of the directions discussed at the end of LGM 2009 is to improve ties to the academic world. There is a natural fit between motivated students (not only in computer science) and Open Source. With Micheal Terry of University of Waterloo (a pioneering institution that it lets students keep intellectual property to their work, enabling them to release under Free licenses); Nicolas Robidoux of Laurentian University; Sébastien Roy of Université de Montréal; there were at least three professors presenting at LGM. And let’s not forget Benoît Ozell of École Polytechnique who made LGM’s infrastructure possible. We need more. Universities can leverage Free software as teaching instrument and research ground; as well as a lower cost, high quality, self-maintained infrastructure (not a negligible point in these times of shrinking budgets). Free software’s benefit would be a reneweable source of recruits: as generations of students come and go, some of them may stick around. Others will just make a small part of the journey with us as a way to start early establishing a track record for their future professional career. Tht0s good too. I am proud of the ties Hugin developed to Lighttwist and the 3D Vision Lab at Université de Montréal. We need more such symbiotic relationships.

Usability and User Interfaces

One of the hottest topics throughout the conference was user interfaces.

Jon seems to be sold on the web based stuff. Listen to his talk. I’m skeptic. The cloud buzz reminds me of early day eCommerce buzz, and more specifically a Powerpoint slide (I think it was a McKinsey consultant) ranking goods and services in order of eMarketability. That slide made perfect sense to me: goods where the touch/feel/smell experience is important (e.g. cigars) don’t sell well over the net. Twelve years and a few bubbles later another smart consultant may have already a similar slide for the cloud. Great for new media publishing; for transparent data backups and other back-end services. I bet that graphics apps in the cloud are not far away from cigars in eCommerce. For services that already have an inherent dependence on bandwidth, the cloud is indeed a great thing. Redundancy is good.

I found Michael Terry’s lightning talk about kinematic templates one of the most refreshing and interesting contributions. Time to apply these same principles to general menu navigation. Apple does it the hardware way by putting the menus always on top of the screen so that reaching for a menu I don’t have to slow down and target the item precisely as if it was in the middle of the screen. With screens becoming ever larger, the approach has its limitation. Not every pixel on the screen has equal weight/importance and this should be mapped to a sort of gravity map in mouse movements. Drawings / kinematic templates are the first and most immediate application to this. Kudos!

Video Editing

Before LGM I had this perception of void in the area of video editing. I did my research six months ago when I bought this great camcorder to share the joys of a grandson discovering the world with my parents across the pond. I want to spend time video editing, not trying to make the tools work. Result: I bought SONY Vegas 9 Platinum Edition to replace the useless stuff that comes bundled with the camcorder and has the limitation that it does not work with anything else but the bundled camcorder (serial number check!).

Jean-François Fortin Tam gave an excellent presentation about PiTiVi. Interestingly, he was perviously also a Vegas user – Vegas is in my opinion the least worse of the pack of video editing applications, all licenses considered. PiTiVi looks promising, but it seems to be only available for Linux, still lacks some basic tools such as fade transitions, and as Jean-François said, tog et something useable you still have to make an effort to make the tools work by getting them from the repository. I have not tried it yet, but it may become an interesting alternative in a few month, when the project will release something stable that will be picked up by the different Linux distributions.

What really inspired me was Bassam Kurdali’s speech describing the use of Blender as a video editor. During Bassam’s talk I grabbed a video to my notebook and tried to follow in his footstep. And guess what? I’m sold. From a user interface perspective, things worked very well for me. Only a technical issue for which I filed a bug report is keeping me from making my first steps in Blender as a video editor.

User Interfaces Revisited

Using Blender was an eye-opener to me. My greatest fear, which turn out to be unwarranted, was that a complex tool would have a steep learning curve. What I found out was the other way around. Blender has a user interface metaphore constent across the board (even across different operating systems, which is a plus) which makes it so easy to take the plunge! It interface effectively between the users and the very broad and sometimes extremely complex set of functionalities. It scales nicely and once a few basic concepts are understood, it is very effective. Blender rocks!

This brings me to another (last) topic in this long post: UI consistency. As Ginger Coons said in one of my preferred talks designers like Adobe. In my opinion, one of the factors that contribute to this liking is the consistent user interface. When you know how to handle one tool, you know how to handle all of them. Many Libre Graphics software have a rather rough user interface (and I include Hugin in the pack). The notable exception is Blender.

The UIs of our tools are too disparate. I know my following wish won’t happen any time soon. I know all of our tools have their own unique histories, cultures, dependencies, likes and dislikes. But I am allowed to dream, right? So let me drop the bomb: If I could, I’d put a layer of Blender UI on top of all of them. Because the Blender UI is so great. It’s consistent across the tools and even across operating systems. My guess is that this is the result of a well thought-through design because the people at Blender were confronted with a bigger problem than the rest of us. They had to interface between their users with a set of functionaities that is far more extended and often times more complex than any other graphics tool. The result of their design effort is a UI with a clean and consistent metaphore. Learn that, and you’re half-way on the learning curve. It is easy to learn and efficient to use.

Conclusions

LGM 2009 was great. Dreaming is permitted. But most important, we need to take consistent actions throughout the year and build on top of what has been achieved to make LGM 2010 even better. For myself, I’m off for a one month trip back home. When I’m back, I’ll tackle those priorities that are in the realm of what I can do. For the rest, I am ready to team up with whoever shares the vision of a stronger, united, Libre Graphics Universe.

Don’t Let qtpfsgui die!

My SonQtpfsgui is the tongue-thorning acronym that identifies one of the most interesting graphics application of the last years. It was registered two years ago on Sourceforge by Giuseppe Rota who as a student saw a need waiting to be fulfilled and an opportunity for a good project: an Open Source graphic user interface to the HDR/Tonemapping process. There are plenty of HDR/Tonemapping tools out there, some of them free (as in beer, not as in speech). Most of them limited to a few tone mapping operators (TMO). And then there is the scientific community, chruning out new TMOs on a regular basis. Rafal Mantiuk is doing a great job at keeping the command line driven pfstools up to date with the latest scientific developments to which he is a significant contributor himself. But the command line is not what graphic artists are used to, especially in a context in which they need visual feedback when turning the knobs and playing with the different parameters of the TMOs.

Unfortunately, not much has happened with Qtpfsgui in the last half year. Giuseppe asked for help with a new name and maybe an icon. Nothing happened yet. With the help of Roman Bednarik and Alexandre Prokoudine, he mentored Vladimir Smida in a season of usability project. But Giuseppe is now busy with his day job, and so little has been going on in the repository. If there is somebody out there reading who knows C++ and Qt (or who wants to learn it), this is a great and very useful project with a significant number of users.

And it is the only tool that got the conversion from RAW of my son’s beautiful eyes just right. Below is standard RAW processing, with Photoshop.

My Son, original

Qtpfsgui needs you

Qtpfsgui is Giuseppe Rota’s brainchild. It is a graphic user interface (GUI) to pfstools( PFS), a set of powerful HDR/Tonemapping tools developed and maintained as an Open Source project by Grzegorz Krawczyk and Rafal Mantiuk, using the Qt Toolkit (QT).

The acronyms explain the tongue-breaking name for the software. Giuseppe is still looking for alternative name proposals. But more than that, he is looking for HELP!

When he started the project, he was still a student with enough time at hand. Now he is a busy professional and the software needs a new maintainer. And it needs any contribution it can get.

I started writing tutorials for the different pfstools tone mapping operators (TMO) that QTpfsgui makes available, but bumped into serious difficulties. With small images, things were right most of the time. But with large images pushing the limits the results sometimes did not look right. I filed a few bug reports. I dug deeper and found out that the PFS tools are actually working as expected when called from the command line. What can cause such an interaction between the GUI code and the functional code which in itself works? and what can be done?

TMO: Mantiuk

Mantiuk is the name given to the first tab from the right in the Tone Mapping Panel of QTpfsgui 1.9.2. Qtpfsgui gives access to a limited subset of Tone Mapping Operators (TMO) from pfstmo, a subproject of pfstools from the comfort of a graphic user interface. In this specific case to the mantiuk06 TMO, based on research by Rafal Mantiuk, Karol Myszkowski and Hans-Peter Seidel.

First thing to do when trying a new TMO is to check out the result with default parameters:

Then play with one parameter at a time to get a feel for them. Try first changing the pre tone mapping gamma adjustment. Below is the result with a pre tonemapping gamma adjustment of 0.500:

Back to default values, it is time to play with the algorithm’s own parameters. Send the Contrast Factor slider all to the right and apply. Then send it all to the left and appy. The resulting images are not ready for consumption, but they give you a feel for the slider’s action.

An interesting one is the Contrast Equalization checkbox. The parameters for the result above, with Contrast Equalization checked, yield a visually more interesting sky:

Next is the Saturation Factor slider. Again, try it at extreme positions, but remember that high saturation is one of the pitfalls of tonemapping. I actually liked the result above.

Mantiuk06 is a great algorithm also when used straight on RAW images out of the camera – assuming they have been properly exposed.