By Oliver Zeller
Issue: August 1, 2005


Amidst the requisite software iteration updates, SIGGRAPH 2005 in LA indicated the first significant step in overhauling stymieing software and hardware architecture. A concerted effort to revolutionize artists tools and introduce new paradigms is underway.

Perhaps the most significant example occurred off the exhibition floor at the Orpheum Theater. The presentation began with Luxology's chief scientist Allen Hastings silently showing Modo's new 3D paint capabilities before walking off stage. The timely choreographed theatrics continued as its charismatic president, Brad Peebler, revealed Version 201 of their modeler Modo, featuring an unexpected and impressively-fast, quality renderer. This was however superseded by a demonstration of their underlying framework Nexus and an ingenious side venture.

Nexus is Luxology's flexible internal development platform. Fundamentally, it deals with items and time from which tools are then developed and combined. Once certain tools have coalesced, they can be baked out and productized into an application with cross platform versions compiled in short timeframes that were previously unheard of. When Apple announced their shift to Intel CPUs, Luxology was able to port Modo in 10-15 minutes to the revised Mac OS.

The real power of the Nexus architecture became apparent when Mr. Peebler demonstrated a frenzied animated character and then proceeded to build horns on the character model while it was still animating in realtime. Obviously, this isn't particularly practical in production, so he opened a custom Modo window and created horns on a still model of the character while the audience saw them dynamically appear on the animating character in the adjacent viewport. An impressive demonstration that was almost equaled by Luxology's collaboration with Allegorithmic.

Their joint venture has produced a promising Photoshop filter for texture creation, code-named ImageSynth. The filter reads a photograph and then synthesizes it as a procedural texture, which can be output to any resolution and made tileable without visible repetition. It can even blend multiple photos to create entirely new, realistic procedural bitmaps. As texture photos are usually swatch based and require time consuming editing for practical 3D purposes, this wondrous filter may prove one of the most lauded graphics tools of the year upon its fourth quarter release.

Back on the exhibition floor, a real eye catcher was found sitting in the Brightside booth. An extreme dynamic range high definition screen sat next to a standard HDTV. The absurdly superior contrast was breathtaking. Talking to a representative, one problem raised was the difficulty in acquiring HDR live action footage, both to capture significant dynamic range and dealing with the larger inherent data. The company claims to have solved this by using a bios upgrade for CCD cameras and an HDR tailored 25:1 compression algorithm.

Complementing this technology was Autodesk's unveiling of their HDR-oriented, highly-interactive, multi-user collaborative composite tool, Toxik. Realtime intuitiveness with HDR 2K-4K imagery was flawless. It was difficult to gauge the strength of its collaborative features outside of production, though as Toxik's primary feature, aided by a built-in Oracle database, its prospects are excellent.

Autodesk didn't stop there, showing off the eighth major iteration of its flagship package, 3DS Max. Its brilliantly conceived pelt mapping and automated supplementary tools for balanced UV template creation were showstoppers. Hopefully, for the most part, it will represent the demise of lengthy manual UV unwrapping so artists' time is better spent on creative endeavors.

Claytools for 3DS Max, Maya and Rhino combined with the Phantom Omni haptic device, drew consistent crowds to the Senseable booth. What particularly surprised me was its non-apparent function as a virtual scanning device. A feature of Claytools allows the user to quickly define a simpler polymesh over a high density sculptured object, with automatic surface/edge detection and snapping. Subsequently, Claytools, when combined with the Phantom Omni, may offer a relatively fast method of rebuilding complex CAD/IGES data, such as cars.

Software developers also placed a noticeable focus on the streamlining of character-oriented content, best depicted by Massive Jet and Softimage Face Robot.

Massive Jet is a new sibling of Massive, the artificial intelligence crowd system originally developed for "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Its one-third price tag and streamlined ease of use should appeal to a broader section of digital artists using Linux, as prior Massive use has been limited to high-end film and commercials. Colleague, Jan Rybar whose iMAGESfx predominantly handles architectural visualization noted, "It does exactly what I expected," and he agrees with their moniker, "Massive is for artists, not engineers." He particularly points out Massive's ability to use different character components for extensive variation and the simple placement of agents by drawing a curve and specifying the terrain and obstacles. Key controls can be manipulated using sliders with clear graphical feedback. Massive Jet also offers a ready-to-run agent library, Smart Stunts and support for cloth and rigid dynamics, though complete control over agents "brains" and crowd behaviors requires Massive 2.0. Massive Software states the OpenGL renderer is final frame production viable and hardware accelerated with a Quadro FX 3000 or higher. Software rendering is supported via RenderMan and in the near future, Mental Ray.

Softimage Face Robot models facial soft tissue so artists can intuitively create expressive animation with markers, avoiding cumbersome morph state creation or bone rigging. The software is a standalone application, integrating into Softimage|XSI, Maya and 3DS Max, and supports motion capture.

Motion capture was also an element in a strong display of gestural technologies, as seen in Spielberg's "Minority Report." "Minority Report" consultant, John Underkoffler, demonstrated the precision of Vicon's MX system in tracking the markers on his gloves as he manipulated screen data. The TouchLight system that uses the translucent Holoscreen, offered a similar experience in the E-Tech Gallery. The darkened gallery was also home to the Khronos Projector, where dragging on a touch-sensitive screen dynamically revealed localized time shifted imagery within the original context.

The most influential technology however was the proliferation and support of 64-bit platforms. This support included 64-bit versions of Eyeon's compositing system Fusion 5, and all major 3D content creation programs. After a four year development cycle, Lightwave 64-bit was revealed to much fanfare, though superseded by the shocking price reduction of Lightwave to $795. The impact of handling millions, even billions of polygons, efficiently under 64-bit architecture had to be witnessed to be fully appreciated. Its impact even extended to enhanced 32-bit software, evidenced by the gigapolygon core in Softimage|XSI 5 and Modo's "mega polys, mega pixels" renderer.

Let's hope this renaissance persists into SIGGRAPH 2006!