It's encouraging to see that despite a slow economy and uncertain times, the pace of computer graphics innovation continues to be swift. In this year, as in each of the seven preceding it, the editors of Computer Graphics World were confronted with a stunning array of new products and technologies. Choosing our winners was just as difficult as always, but we finally determined 20 products that best represent the essence of innovation in visual computing.
Some trends of note this year include CAD innovation, alive and well as evidenced by the five CAD programs we've cited. We're also seeing products that emulate some of the processes of the pre-digital era. Ali as| Wavefront's PortfolioWall, a virtual bulletin board, is one. Another is @Last Software's SketchUp, which offers architects a paper-and-pencil style interface with which to draft projects. Another exciting development is the graphical/music interface, represented here by Derivative's Touch 101 and 3dMaxMedia's Zuma. It's always exciting to see CG technologies like these that have developed in directions we never would have predicted.
Congratulations to each of the Eighth Annual Innovation Awards winners. We hope the year to come will yield innovations as significant as the ones on these pages.
Designers nostalgic for the pre-digital era, when sketches pinned on bulletin boards served as both gathering place and planning tool, were the inspiration behind Alias|Wavefront's new digital asset management software. PortfolioWall is a virtual bulletin board that allows multiple users to view and annotate images through a touchscreen interface. A member of a product design team, for example, can select and rearrange design iterations by pointing a finger at images and dragging them, placing them side by side for comparison, or stacking them. Users can also zoom into features and sketch or write notes on top of images. The product is also proving useful in entertainment creation and publishing environments. PortfolioWall works with touchscreen displays of various sizes. It comes in two packages-Presenter, a standalone application; and Server, a networked version. (Alias|Wavefront; www.aliaswavefront.com)
ImpactXoft Corp. has introduced three novel technologies with its IX Speed software for mechanical CAD modeling and collaboration. The first is a new approach to solid modeling that simplifies the process of making design modifications. Whereas most solid modelers use the history-based parametrics approach that PTC pioneered with Pro/Engineer, IX Speed is able to create complex geometry and establish associative relationships between part features without tying the design to a history tree. This so-called "functional modeling" capability is ideal for collaborative environments involving teams of de signers, who tend to make modifications at any stage of product development. The second new technology facilitates the parallel design process by enabling rapid sharing of CAD models among many users over the Internet. Unlike most file-transfer methods, which use geometry streaming to transmit product data, IX Speed sends the design "recipe" for creating full-featured models to the target systems. The third innovation in IX Speed is a clever technique for synchronizing and blending design modifications into the models stored on each of the team members' work stations. (ImpactXoft Corp.; www.impactxoft.com)
Pandromeda's MojoWorld allows users to generate not just landscapes but also in-depth "worlds" through which they can move as the program generates changing terrain in real time. These worlds include spherical, planetary environments, continents with lakes and rivers, and rings and multiple moons for the planets. MojoWorld is entirely procedural, so all scenery is created on the fly. A scene can be captured at any point and rendered as a still image, with pixel-level detail at any resolution. Animators who wish to go beyond the imagery provided by Pandromeda may design their own environments as MojoWorld plug-ins, because the program was developed with an open architecture. MojoWorld is available in two packages: Transporter, a free "exploration" tool, and Generator, which enables full creation capabilities. (Pandromeda; www.pandromeda.com)
Imagine a program that would allow total CAD software interoperability, so that any system would be able to work freely and completely with models created with any other system. Proficiency's Collaboration Gateway has taken a major step in that direction by enabling the exchange of design intelligence-including a model's feature, history, and constraint information-among the big four CAD systems: PTC's Pro/Engineer, Dassault Systemes' Catia, UGS's Unigraphics, and SD RC's I-deas (the latter two of which are now part of EDS). The software interprets a mod el from the "sen der's" sys tem and re creates it with all the geometry and design intelligence in the native format of the "receiver's" system. (Proficiency; www.proficiency.com)
@Last Software's SketchUp is designed for architects who aren't comfortable creating preliminary sketches in traditional CAD software. To sketch in 3D, you draw in 2D, then push and pull the resulting shapes to create 3D objects. Models can be painted or given realistic bitmap textures such as brick or wood. Shadows and thickened lines can be added to give the model a more hand-designed look. The program is almost as easy to use as pencil and paper. SketchUp can also be exported to AutoCAD and 3ds max or 3D studio viz format. (@Last Software; www. sketch3d.com)
With the Viewpoint Media Player 3.0.8, 3D Web animations seemingly leap out of boxes, onto a browser page, and even onto the desk top. This is accomplished with a bit of clever trickery: The new HyperView feature in Media Player's Viewpoint Experience Technology (VET) offers a borderless, transparent rectangle that can expand to be as large as the desktop. HyperView content is self-contained in VET, not in HTML layers, so it can be composited (with soft shadows) over HTML, the browser window, and the desktop without affecting the content underneath. Thus, the illusion that 3D animations leave their boxes and travel onto the desktop is complete. The same HyperView windows also allow high-resolution zooms without requiring different page layouts to accommodate changes in image size because HyperView windows grow and shrink as needed. (Viewpoint Corp. www.viewpoint.com)
Unlike most motion-capture systems, which use no more than 24 cameras, Ascension Technology Corp.'s ReActor infrared optical motion-capture system uses 480 fixed-location electronic cameras for absolute coverage of a performer, even during extreme types of movement. The result is cleaner and more accurate data acquired in real time without compromising the actor's freedom of movement. The cameras-embedded in 12 modular bars that form an open cube-are equipped with Ascension's Instant Marker Recognition technology, which allows the system to reacquire a lost marker as soon as it becomes unblocked. Rather than the cameras finding the markers, however, which is typically how mocap systems handle occlusions, the 30 "active" markers worn by the actor find the cameras. ReActor supports a variety of software, including Discreet's 3ds max, DreamTeam's Typhoon, and Kaydara's Filmbox, with import/export through Filmbox. (Ascension Technology Corp.; www.ascension-tech.com)
Game companies and game players alike can now extend the life of a computer game title, thanks to Discreet's gmax software, a game development and level editor based on 3ds max. Developers can integrate their customized 3ds max code into gmax, thereby reducing the costs and time involved in building single-use in-house tools. They can then distribute these customized tool collections for a particular title so that players can create their own levels with the same look as the original product. On the user side, the free gmax level editor download allows game players to create, modify, and swap their own unique, customized title content through online gaming communities, using a selection of 3ds max-based modeling, animation, and texturing features. (Discreet; www.discreet.com)
A new kind of computer interface in which graphical and musical input are combined is represented by both 3dMaxMedia's Zuma and Derivative's Touch 101 software.
3dMaxMedia's Zuma is a 3D music visualizer that enables users to create their own interactive videos and expressive 3D images that respond to MP3s, CDs, live audio, and interactive controls in real time. This makes the product ideal for creative expression at concerts, clubs, theme parks, and other public venues. Zuma can be set up to manipulate every parameter in a scene through a range of real-time sources and manipulators, including audio and external MIDI controllers, as well as Zuma's mouse-based Magic Sliders, keyboard-based hotkeys, VADSR (visual-attack, decay, sustain, release) manipulators, and numerous internal oscillators and ramp controllers. As a result, every image seems to come alive, from the lighting to the camera's movement to the models themselves. Zuma, which can be downloaded and shared over the Web, ships with a library of completely modeled and textured scenes, or users can create their own high-resolution images that, in turn, can be shared over the Internet. Discreet 3ds max models, even with their attached animations, can also be incorporated, while standard graphics files such as jpgs and video files or live video can be used as object textures, with multiple levels of transparency. (3dMaxMedia; www.3dmaxmedia.com)
With Derivative's Touch 101 toolset-TouchDesigner, TouchMixer, and TouchPlayer-artists create and perform interactive 3D visuals that can be played on the Web. Artists use TouchDesigner to create visual elements and build control panels that allow these elements, plus lights and cameras, to be manipulated in real time. TouchMixer is for creating animations, interactive art, and live 3D visuals that accompany music. The visual elements, lights, and cam eras can also be controlled with MIDI and other input de vices. Performances can be distributed on the Web as Quick time movies with soundtracks or as Touch "synths" and "Touch Tracks" that can be played with Derivative's TouchPlayer for the Web. The "synths" include the 3D visuals and controls; the Touch Track plays the music. Viewers with TouchPlayers can watch a recreation of the artist's performance on the Web, or they can use the controls to take the visuals in another direction. (Derivative; www.derivativeinc.com)
Despite the proliferation of CAD viewing and collaboration software, many designers still choose to share engineering data with suppliers and customers the old-fashioned way-by fax or regular mail. Two years ago, SolidWorks introduced the first version of eDrawings, a program that created compressed electronic versions of onscreen 2D CAD drawings small enough to send via e-mail. The initial version also embedded a compact viewer in each file so e-mail recipients could view the drawings from multiple perspectives. This year, the company released a full-blown version, eDrawings 2.0, which compresses both 2D and 3D CAD files for email delivery. It also embeds an enhanced viewer that allows recipients not only to review CAD models, but to mark up, measure, and return them to the sender. (SolidWorks; www.solidworks.com)
In a major departure from the closed-system approach long adhered to by CAD vendors, CAD/CAM/CAE giant PTC introduced Granite One, a new kernel-based technology for data interchange. Existing modeling kernels such as Parasolid and ACIS provide standards for transferring geometry. But PTC raises the bar so that users of applications built on Granite can share CAD models in which the original feature data-as defined by the application that authored the models-is preserved and visible to all the applications that reference it. By providing this capability, PTC sets a new standard for kernel-based data interchange. (PTC; www.ptc.com)
Mechanical CAD software has become highly sophisticated over its decades-long history in its ability to help users create and manage geometric information relating to a product design, but it still falls short when it comes to capturing non-geometric information. To address this deficiency, Vistagy introduced EnCapta, a type of "Post-It-Note" technology that enables designers to attach vital information-about part specifications, costs, materials, tooling, assembly, testing, and so on-directly to geometric features on a product model. With EnCapta, designers can search, sort, view, and edit data associated with a product by clicking on a 3D part. By keeping this kind of information-which might otherwise get buried in text documents, spreadsheets, drawings, and hand-written notes-accessible to users directly from the model, EnCapta improves the effectiveness of CAD as a communications medium throughout a company. (Vistagy; www.vistagy.com)
Don't touch that dial (or screen or mouse or keyboard). The JestPoint video-based, gesture-control application takes a hands-off approach to human-computer interaction. Its unique stereo camera technology allows users to control content on any size computer screen from any distance by pointing at the screen and making a quick jab forward to "click" on a command. Users can navigate the Web and rotate 3D product images without touching any hardware. An outgrowth of the JestPoint technology is the company's JestExtreme, which is a content-control capability that relies on the user's entire body for interaction. A video camera captures a user's image and projects that image into a virtual setting. The software monitors the user's actions and translates those actions into what is happening on screen. Both technologies are aimed at enhancing computer game and e-commerce applications. (Jestertek; www.jestertek.com)
This year, two graphics processors from the world of PC gaming rather than workstations brought fresh technology to 3D graphics. First Nvidia, then ATI announced chips that took advantage of new capabilities in Microsoft's DirectX 8 multimedia development API to offer programmable graphics hardware. Though programmable hardware had been available on a limited basis at the very high end of 3D graphics, and to expert programmers, Nvidia's GeForce and ATI's Radeon 8500 mark the first time that game developers have been able to take advantage of the numerous special effects that such programmability offers. Now, with the fledgling OpenGL 2 initiative poised to support programmable hardware, it looks as though this technology is having a "trickle-up" effect, and will eventually be supported by vendors of professional-level hardware and software as well.
Nvidia's GeForce3 graphics processor, with its 57 million transistors (15 million more than a Pentium 4 CPU) arrived this year to considerable buzz both in and outside the gaming community. But the GeForce3 card lived up to the hype, chiefly because of its nfiniteFX engine, which lets developers program numerous special effects. Two advances are part of the engine's programmability: vertex shaders, which allow for the stretching of materials (to show emotion in a character's face, for example), and pixel shaders, which let developers create more realistic colors, textures, and shapes for both organic and inorganic surfaces. Adding to the board's power is its Lightspeed Memory Architecture, which utilizes not one but four cross-wired memory controllers that help the video card keep up with the graphics processor. The GeForce3 supports both Macintosh and Windows environments. (Nvidia; www.nvidia.com).
The second graphics processor to offer programmable hardware to game developers was the Radeon from ATI Technologies. In addition to Smartshader, ATI's name for its technology that supports programmable hardware, and hence more diverse textures and lighting, the Radeon 8500 board features ATI's proprietary Truform rendering technology, which delivers more realistic and natural-looking 3D imagery The board runs on Windows PCs, but is optimized for Microsoft's new Windows XP operating system. (ATI Technologies; www.ati.com)
The Henson Digital Performance Studio (HDPS) is a self-contained workstation that allows puppeteers to control the performance of real-time computer graphics characters. Using 16 activators and a unique graphical interface, puppeteers can animate a CG character and create expressions on the fly without having to write scripts or programs prior to the performance. Thus, a director can sit with a puppeteer and improvise an animation. The HDPS Performance Control System software communicates with its custom viewer application or a program such as Protozoa's Alive to display real-time characters. HDPS also plugs into such 3D animation packages as Maya, 3ds max, Houdini, LightWave, and Filmbox. Animations created using HDPS can be exported for rendering in high resolution. The studio currently offers the system as a service for hire only, noting that it is at its best when used by people who have been trained as puppeteers. (Jim Henson Creature Shop; www.henson.com/hdps, www.creatureshop.com)
With Absolute Character Tools (ACT), artists using Discreet's 3ds max can create and animate muscles and deform skin based on muscle movement. First, an artist builds bones and sets up an IK structure in max. Second, the artist skins the bones with a program such as Bones Pro or Physique. Then, using ACT, the artist builds muscles on top of bones and under the skin. ACT muscles are created with parametric primitives and are moved with a deformation engine. Once muscles are attached, they move automatically, although modifiers allow tweaking. A cross-section editor offers real-time views of muscles. Skin deformation is accomplished with selected muscles, and this secondary deformation works on top of general skin deformation created with a tool such as Physique. The program's developer, Snoswell Design, plans to port the software to Maya and offer a standalone version later. The max version is available from Digimation. (Snoswell Design; www.cgcharacter.com) (Digimation www.digimation.com)
Based on traditional mathematical techniques as well as plant biology and dynamics, natFX from Bionatics lets users create and grow natural-looking plant models, from sprouts to saplings to full-grown vegetation. The software reconstitutes the physical material structures of the vegetation, so the virtual seeds used to generate the plants conform to biological laws and are therefore affected by seasons, sunlight, water, and other environmental conditions. Also incorporated into the code are natural vegetation constraints for simulating responses to physical forces-falling leaves, a bending trunk on a young sapling, or strained branches weighted down by snow. The product sprang from research at the Center for Inter national Cooperation in Agronomic Research for Development (CIRAD) in France. (Bionatics; www.bionatics.com)
Not only does Next Limit's fluid-simulation technology allow users to go with the flow of their liquid animations, it also lets them stem the digital tide when the laws of physics would do so in the real world. The software consists of a physically based particle system built on computational fluid dynamics techniques that lets users accurately simulate the behavior of liquids, gases, slime, goo, lava, and other viscous materials. It also lets users switch and morph between the range of fluids. In addition, a novel collision engine allows the fluid to interact with a moving polygonal environment. The standalone software links to a range of 3D modeling and animation packages, including Light Wave, 3ds max, Softimage, Maya, and Cinema 4D via free plug-ins. (Next Limit; www.nextlimit.com)