Who Needs A Lamborghini If You've Got An Sgi?

For years, pop artist Peter Max has used computers to create his famous graphics. But he was still not prepared for what he saw the first time he sat down at a Silicon Graphics Inc. workstation. A friend showed him how to create realistic 3-D images without picking up a brush. "I immediately went crazy," says Max. Now, he will use SGI gear to bring his art into the multimedia age--complete with sound and video. "With this equipment, my whole life will change," he declares.

SGI machines do that to people--and not just because of what's on the screen. There's a mystique about them that transcends bits and bytes--and frustrates rivals. "SGI has done a great job of creating a cult," grouses Robert G. Pearson, a former SGI marketing manager who now directs advanced systems at Sun Microsystems Inc.

PEBBLY FINISH. Just as Apple Computer Inc. did with its Macintosh computers, SGI cultivates an image of its machines as the coolest around. Indeed, among people who can afford to shell out the bucks--prices start at $5,000 and can easily run up to $40,000 for a workstation--they've replaced Macs as the hippest box in cyberspace. "It's like getting a Lamborghini," exclaims rock musician and multimedia entrepreneur Todd Rundgren, a cult member.

Yes, SGI is a company with attitude. Its computers come in electric purple, crimson, and teal. And the newer ones even feel different. They have a pebbly finish that reinforces SGI's 3-D feel because it has depth to it. Even company literature has attitude. One slick brochure shows SGI's Indigo machine as a bookend for tomes on Matisse and The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants, CDs by Sarah Vaughan and the Talking Heads, and a video of The Maltese Falcon. For its latest machine, the $5,000 Indy workstation, SGI went all-out. Its "earthquake" shape--as if one pizza box were stacked atop another, but slightly crooked--was designed not only to evoke a three-dimensional feel but to draw people to touch it, says Vice-President Thomas C. Furlong.

Most ambitious, SGI hired San Francisco film studio Colossal Pictures Inc. to create the ultimate "Out of Box Experience"--an elaborate video demonstration of the Indy's features. Among other intricately detailed, phantasmagoric images, a juggler tosses balls into the air, and the balls lead through a colonnade. You click on the balls to enter "rooms" running demos of each machine function. A cute bonus: Nestled in Indy's packing box are three real juggling balls.

But high-profile customers give the cult its prestige--another Apple tactic that SGI has improved on. When Apple co-founder Steven P. Jobs called Max about the first Mac, the artist recalls being disappointed that it was a monochrome screen. The SGI, by contrast, lets him feel as if "I have my hands in the paint." In addition to Max, SGI cultivates artists, musicians, and film directors, never missing a chance to plug its Hollywood connections--even though movieland is still a fraction of overall sales.

Not all of the Hollywood crowd drinks the SGI Kool-Aid. Thomas A. Williams, chief of digital special-effects at LucasArts Entertainment Co.'s Industrial Light & Magic, hates the flashy colors of the machines. Still, Williams loves what they can do. SGI just has to make sure he keeps liking what's inside. After all, even in Hollywood, the computer business isn't all image.

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