Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 7 (July 2006)

When Worlds Collide


By Kathleen Maher

The premise is an obvious one: All the work that goes into creating a design for a product can be reused to create art for a video, documentation, or a slick magazine ad. But is the theory more attractive than the actual application?

In the last three years, there has been remarkable progress in hardware and software technology to make the process of creating art from computer-aided design (CAD) much easier. For example, graphics processing units (GPU), thanks to the evolution of common APIs such as DirectX 9 and OpenGL 2, provide hardware acceleration of shader programs. The new GPUs, in turn, have given software vendors good reason to support DirectX and OpenGL, and to offer their own shader programs.

CAD vendors have long anticipated the blending of art and CAD, and were way ahead of the curve in this area. Much of the early work in rendering software was done to enable the rendering of CAD models. Countless rendering products were developed to enable architectural walk-throughs, and CAD products took on more and more rendering capabilities. In fact, Autodesk acquired 3D Studio Max, as 3ds Max was once known, at least partially to enhance its capabilities in CAD. More recently, the company acquired Alias Technology, which gives Autodesk both industrial design tools and digital content creation tools for the entertainment industry. Likewise, Dassault has acquired Virtools, a company actively involved in the game development industry.

 

The ability to use CAD models in marketing materials means that photographers may now just
shoot backgrounds rather than the entire ad using real cars or prototypes. On the
other hand, the whole shot can be created in the computer, allowing for a wealth of options.

New 3D exchange formats—such as U3D, DWF, 3DXML from Dassault, and the Web3D consortium’s X3D—are appearing, as well, and are designed to improve the ability of artists and designers to collaborate and output art for use on the Web, in print, or in animation. Also, companies such as Okino, Right Hemisphere, Immersive Design, and Lattice 3D have emerged to sit in the middle and mediate as files are exchanged for creating art and documentation. More than simple file exchange, these companies’ products facilitate collaboration and documentation. In fact, many of these companies were born of the chaos that surrounded the early CAD wars and the need to exchange CAD data; others came along to accommodate large companies that are collaborating and creating documentation.

The CAD revolution means that data is digital and, thus, it can be reused, repurposed, and mined…at least in theory. In practice—even at this late stage of the game—CAD and engineering departments often exist in their own isolated worlds, and it is difficult to get models and even images out of the design and engineering departments for use by other groups such as marketing, service, maintenance, and so forth.

Who Is the Artist?

The dirty little secret about art and CAD is this: Artists called on to create artwork for products frequently start from scratch to create artwork, even when CAD models are available. Why? Artists will tell you that the complexity of CAD models and their data sometimes gets lost in the file exchange, making it easier to just start at the beginning. Also, of course, the art department might be attached to an outside marketing firm rather than the designing company, so it’s not always easy for the group to communicate with the CAD and engineering group. Even internal art departments might find themselves challenged by the need to negotiate with engineering or to work with CAD models in a variety of formats. And often, the engineering department is loath to relinquish precious CAD data.

Yet, the problem is not necessarily a technical one. Rather, it’s more of a human resources issue. Where does the process begin? Who is in charge? What is the output? The truth of the matter is there indeed exists a gap between the CAD model and the art output, and there is no well-defined job description that covers it.

For example, Greg Smith, CEO of Immersive Design, says that as CAD data moves out of the engineering department and into publishing, CAD professionals are being asked to change the way they work. Immersive Design is one of those companies that sit between the CAD model and the output format—in this case, Acrobat 3D. The company’s product, IPA, lets users employ 3D models from solid modelers—such as SolidWorks’ SolidWorks, UGS’s Solid Edge and Ideas, and PTC’s Pro/Engineer—add animation, text, and so forth, and create an interactive Web page that can be used for collaboration, documentation (for manuals, maintenance, and such), supply chain management, and marketing purposes.

Smith notes that as people work with 3D CAD models for an interactive document, they often find themselves wishing that the model had been created differently so that it would be easier to animate. The most common example is a model that will be used to create an exploded view. And certainly, it helps if the parts are created in the right sequence. The same can be said for creating materials, adding lighting, and so on. Smith notes that it’s more important than ever to think about how a model is going to be used downstream before it is ever created in the first place.

JaJa Ishibashi, director of business development at Works Zebra, enthusiastically agrees that job descriptions are changing, and his company is capitalizing on that situation. Works Zebra collaborates with Toyota to create beautifully rendered images for print and the Web. Also, Works Zebra has been working with the Lexus division to create e-Catalogues, wide-screen, interactive 3D presentations used as sales tools. The e-Catalogue is tailored to Asian customers who expect a very high level of service and designed to accommodate car dealerships with limited floor space. Lexus offers customers luxurious rooms at dealerships in Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore , where they can look at beautifully rendered models of cars and specify colors and interiors. They can also look at cars in different environments and times of day.
According to Ishibashi, the rooms have been big successes, and Lexus is exploring the idea of bringing them to the US . “People come back again and again,” he says, noting that customers often visit their cars before they get delivered. When customers finally make their choices, the e-Catalogue system can print out a glossy brochure for them to take home.
 
 

Works Zebra creates visualizations of Lexus car models so that customers can see the new cars in
action —even before the vehicles roll off the production line.

 
The company uses Toyota’s CAD models and Initial Graphics Exchange Specification (IGES) as a neutral exchange format. Next, the group brings them into Robert McNeel & Associates’ Rhino to clean up the IGES data, and then into 3ds Max. From there, Works Zebra puts its own technology to the task, including the company’s proprietary normal-mapping routing tool, ZSurfacing. The firm built quite a few custom shaders for the car, in addition to using its own high dynamic range (HDR) environment mapping and dynamic cube mapping technology. Works Zebra renders out the imagery in Splutterfish’s Brazil and authors interactive videos in Adobe’s Macromedia Director. Works Zebra has also developed its own engine, called Zeany, based on Microsoft’s ActiveX for the interactive application.
 
The Designer as Artist
It could be said that the way that Works Zebra pulls in all available technologies and uses a variety of applications reflects the industry today—with no one way to do anything and a lot of options. In contrast, Autodesk is building an entire ecosystem. The company has long resisted opening up its formats, and instead offers exchange formats that let users take drawings and models into other programs. Most recently, the company has offered its DWF format to let users collaborate, and the company is revamping its DWF Composer as Design Review.
 
The more significant step along the way to realizing Autodesk’s vision is the acquisition of Alias. Obviously Alias’s Maya is an important tool in digital content creation, especially in film work. And thanks to Alias’s acquisition of Kaydara (and its FilmBox product, now called MotionBuilder), Autodesk has yet another exchange format to offer its users in FBX. FBX is widely used by game developers and in film and video to exchange files. And, of course, Autodesk now has Alias Studio, a product suite long favored by industrial designers. Autodesk has not exactly put all the pieces together yet, and the former StudioTools still seems like a bit of a stepchild (as it did when Alias was a separate company). But, it’s clear the vendor wants to offer companies ways to design and market all of its imagery within one happy family.
 
As an example of how all this might work, Autodesk points to Wild West Motor Company. Founded by mechanical engineer Paul Seiter in 1995, the company crafts custom motorcycles—the dream of many a mechanical engineer slaving away on comparatively mundane product designs.
 
The company has its own in-house design center and uses Alias Studio to design its motorcycles with the kind of fluid lines that embody the fantasies of every boy who ever doodled a motorcycle in homeroom class. More important, Alias Studio enables the company to design parts that are manufacturable. The company’s designers draw sketches of a new design, bring it in to Alias Studio, and they are able to snap curves to the orthographic views, giving them something they can surface. Afterward, they use a CNC machine to create a physical model. The team then goes back to Alias Studio to make any additional changes. At the same time, the company is able to start developing its marketing materials. The company’s industrial designers use the same models in Studio to create photorealistic renderings, even before the motorcycle is produced. The company’s Web site (www.wildwestmc.com) features both models and photos of the machines, and one would be hard-pressed to pick the real from the digital.
 
Yet another example is Animation Dynamics, Inc. (ADi) of Portland, Oregon, which creates animations for film, video, and the Web. Increasingly, says Jamie Elmer, ADi’s creative director, “CG is quietly supplanting traditional photography and video.” He notes that once a designer creates a CAD file of a product, a CG artist can create a photoreal image or video for less than a photo or video shoot. ADi created a segment for a Bowflex commercial to demonstrate a new product, the Bowflex SelecTech, before it had been produced. The scene employed match-cut cinematography to morph from real footage to a photorealistic animation. ADi uses Okino’s Polytrans to translate CAD files to Alias Maya. Adobe After Effects was used to achieve the smooth transition to animation.
 

Animation Dynamics, Inc. created a segment for exercise equipment maker Bowflex that demonstrated it's new product, before it had been produced. The scene contained video that morphed into CG.
 
Revolutions Happen So Simply
Finally, as was envisioned long ago by software developers and product designers, the CAD model really is becoming the repository of all information about a product, and it is being mined for that information. While photorealistic renderings, beautiful Web pages, brochures, and even videos made from CAD models are the most glamorous side of creating marketing materials from models, there is plenty of other work that has to be done as a product goes to market and beyond.
 
Documentation may well be the least glamorous side of the design, production, sales, and support cycle, but it is vital to the long-term success. In the realm of documentation, the writing is on the wall for the technical illustrator. Increasingly, what is created digitally stays digital, and there isn’t the time or the will to redraw images for manuals. And 3D models enable detailed assembly views to be pulled directly from the models, embedded in documents, and distributed—often digitally via PDF.
 
For example, the Federal Aviation Administration distributes thousands of pages of manuals to safety experts. By doing it digitally, the FAA can keep pace with changes and eliminate the dangerous practice of sending pages that have to be replaced by employees.
 
Likewise, the automotive industry produces manuals for its cars and technical documentation for automotive repair. The data for these products is already coming from the CAD information, and the industry wants to better collaborate and create digital marketing materials from the CAD data. As a matter of fact, even as CAD companies stonewalled on the development of open exchange formats, their customers—especially those in the automotive and aeronautic industries—have been demanding some way to access models and put them to work. Dassault has offered one solution in 3DXML, which has been accepted by IBM and, to some degree, Microsoft. (Alternatively, Autodesk offers DWF.)
 
In an effort originally spearheaded by Intel, interested parties such as Adobe, Boeing, Hewlett-Packard, Bentley Systems, and Right Hemisphere came together to form the 3D Industry Forum (3DIF) to develop an exchange format. Eventually, after more sturmund drang than one expects from the CAD community, a new exchange format, U3D, was born, and it has opened the door to another avenue of image creation.
 
Adobe has built upon the U3D format to create Acrobat 3D PDF, and anyone with an Acrobat reader can access a 3D model within Acrobat 3D; as a PDF format, it can also be output for print publication or for the Web.
 
Right Hemisphere worked with the 3DIF group and Adobe in the creation of Acrobat 3D. The company, founded in New Zealand, started out building tools for digital content creation, and it still does a lot of business with the New Zealand film industry. Interestingly, the right side and the left side of Right Hemisphere’s corporate culture are coming together in the evolution of Acrobat 3D. The company’s Deep Server product line provides large enterprise companies an organized way to move engineering data through the organization. It offers firms the ability to exchange files and collaborate— a lot of left-brain tasks—and with the introduction of Acrobat 3D, can also create interactive documentation.
 
 

The Gunfire Motorcycle from Wild West Motors was created using a combination of artistic and
design tools. The company has its own in-house design center that uses AliasStudio to achieve the
fluid lines of its bikes. Photorealistic renders are output before production begins.
 
Right Hemisphere offers tools that can automate the documentation process so that all the pages of a manual are formatted correctly and models placed consistently. In addition, complex CAD models can be transformed into lightweight models for downstream applications such as Web publication. Also, CAD models can be optimized for output to just about any digital content creation software, including, of course, Autodesk 3ds Max and Maya, or Softimage XSI. The company also offers tools for the creation of photorealistic models for brochures and video —decidedly right-brain tasks.
 
Case in Point
Right Hemisphere points to all the complicated elements that go into creating images for an automotive brochure: background photography, lighting effects, reflections, shading, materials, textures, and more. There is also the creation of leather interiors, metallic exteriors, and rubber tires. All those elements have to be created according to rigid parameters—after all, the whole point is that they look exactly like the real thing.
 
Right Hemisphere claims that its software enables designers to keep track of the proper materials and environment components so the scene can be automatically rendered and published in a PDF or 3D PDF for review. At the same time, engineers don’t ever have to let their valuable CAD data leave their department unrestricted.
 
For instance, Cenveo Armstrong-White works with US car manufacturers to create still images and animations. The company has been able to work directly with CAD models to create images that would be impossible to do in the real world. To accomplish this, the company uses Right Hemisphere’s technology to prepare models for rendering and animation. And once again, as discovered by Wild West Motors and Works Zebra, the ability to use the CAD model eliminates the need for expensive prototypes and lets the marketing campaign start earlier in the process of readying a new car or truck for sale.
 
Interestingly, Acrobat 3D renders all the arguments about what tools to use in the creation of CAD, animation, video, and photorealistic rendering just about moot. Everyone has Acrobat these days; everyone with the most recent version of Acrobat can see and interact with a 3D PDF model. Immersion Design’s Smith says that building Acrobat 3D into his proposals helps assure signoff from IT because Acrobat is a standard.
 
Yet, Acrobat 3D has yet to prove itself in a broad range of applications— it has just been introduced, and there is more work to be done. Adobe, with its acquisition of Macromedia, has a big meal to swallow, but it also has Flash to add to the equation. Now, Adobe has in-house all the components to enable its partners and customers to build interactive 3D applications for a wide range of platforms, including PCs, kiosks, and even handhelds. In fact, depending on how Acrobat puts it all together, all the examples mentioned in this story could still be authored in the same ways as discussed, but they could be output to common formats like Flash and Acrobat.
 
Where Is the Artist Now?
In this new era, the artist can be anywhere in the equation. Ironically, in some instances, traditional marketing firms have been slow to accept digital models. Although these companies use digital technology in the creation of videos, they are also the ones doing photo shoots and producing videos. They are being challenged by a new creation pipeline. And, to be fair, they are adapting.
 
According to Works Zebra’s Ishibashi, a prototype for a car can cost upward of $500,000 to build because it’s a one-off without the economies of scale that come with high-volume production. What’s worse, the slick car brochure uses several prototypes because to create the classic overhead shot of a car’s interior means that unless it happens to be a convertible, you have to have a prototype without a roof. And, that’s not going to work for your shot of a lovely car on top of a mountain in the snow or at the seashore in the spray.
 

Often, a company will use DCC software from various vendors. Autodesk, however,
has an extensive offering with CAD, design, collaboration, and CG modeling,
animation, and visualization tools.
 
It’s estimated that US carmakers can use up to 100 prototypes for photo shoots a year. According to Right Hemisphere, a Detroit design agency reported that the creation of photorealistic automotive renderings for customer brochures saved the company more than $10 million. Likewise, Toyota has announced that it will cut back on its prototype fleet thanks to the ability to do more work in CGI— and US automotive companies are using CGI to create digital models for sales, marketing, technical publications, and training.
 
As a result, the work of photographers is changing. Instead of shooting cars in exotic locales, they may simply shoot the backgrounds. And, as Ishibashi has discovered, there is a new role emerging for technical artists who may often work between the industrial designer, the CAD engineer, and the ad agency. Sometimes that person might exist within the engineering department, sometimes in marketing, and sometimes that person may be an outside contractor; his or her job description requires a fair share of technical ability as well as artistic ability.
 
The role of industrial designers and engineers is changing, too, as they are being brought in to play a more active role in the creation of materials for marketing. Their job may be as simple as building models in ways that enable the images to be reused downstream with less optimization and remodeling, or it may be as involved as adding textures, custom shaders, and lighting to take the model halfway to the artists creating marketing materials and advertising.
 
Artists and engineers have always known that they need to work together, now they’re learning new ways to do it.
 

Kathleen Maher is a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, California-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia, and is also editor in chief of JPR’s “TechWatch.” She can be reached at Kathleen@jonpeddie.com.  

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