2003 Innovation Awards
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 12 (December 2003)

2003 Innovation Awards

Each year, Computer Graphics World's editors compile a comprehensive list of new products released throughout the previous 12 months. 2003, in particular, brought with it a vast array of technological advancements in modeling, animation, motion capture, simulation, rendering, compositing, digital video editing, and more. After the list was assembled, the group of editors cast their vote for the most innovative products of the year.

The panel of judges for Computer Graphics World's 2003 Innovation Awards included contributing editors Barbara Robertson, Stephen Porter, George Maestri, Doug King, and Jenny Donelan; Karen Moltenbrey and Courtney Howard, senior technical editors; and Phil LoPiccolo, editor in chief.

Logo design courtesy Michael Ingrassia.

Given the wealth of impressive releases, the voting process proved long and arduous. Although forced to limit our selections and omit some impressive new offerings, we are pleased to recognize 17 of the most innovative products of the year. Congratulations to the winners.

Adobe Systems completely overhauled its nonlinear video editing application—infusing it with a streamlined interface, color-correction tools, nestable timelines, enhanced file and media support, and more—and this year, debuted the Pro version at a cost of $699. "With the introduction of Premiere Pro, Adobe has brought to market a low-cost program with high-end capabilities," explains Porter. "And by integrating it so masterfully with its new version of After Effects and its Encore DVD program, Adobe has upped the ante in the desktop video editing space." In full agreement, Maestri says, "Adobe has done an excellent job of turning Premiere into a top-notch editing suite. What Final Cut Pro is to the Mac, Premiere Pro will be to Windows machines."
Adobe Systems; www.adobe.com

Able to transform a tablet PC to a digital sketchbook, Alias SketchBook Pro holds the potential to change the way artists work. Well suited to the mobile professional, the pen-based software solution furnishes users pens, pencils, markers, and airbrushes with which to create images, as well as to annotate and collaborate on images and documents. Additional features include a pen-driven user interface, customizable tools, support for layers, a screen-capture utility, and integration with e-mail.
Alias Systems; www.alias.com

Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) launched its Athlon 64 FX-51, said to be the first 64-bit PC.processor. The AMD Athlon 64 FX processor boasts AMD64 and HyperTransport technologies, a 128-bit integrated DDR memory controller, a large on-die cache memory system, and an AMD64 core—all of which lends to cinematic-quality computing and gaming. Along with increased quality and realism, the processor contributes to increased bandwidth, reduced network bottlenecks, and performance gains in particularly memory-intensive applications.
Advanced Micro Devices (AMD); www.amd.com

The latest edition of Apple's editing application for film, HD, SD, and DV, Final Cut Pro 4 premiered in the middle of the year. Accord-ing to Apple, Final Cut Pro 4 is the first editing system priced less than $100,000 to offer full 32-bit floating-point per channel video processing. Priced less than $1000, in fact, Version 4 sports more than 300 new features, not the least of which is a customizable interface. Final Cut Pro includes RT.Extreme for real-time compositing and effects, LiveType for advanced titling, Compressor for batch transcoding, and Soundtrack for working with audio tracks.
Apple Computer; www.apple.com

The Avid Digital Nonlinear Accelerator (Avid DNA) product family, from Avid Technology, comprises Nitris, Adrenaline, and Mojo. The product of three years and $50 million in research and development, Avid DNA boasts a hybrid architecture that takes advantage of host-based software and hardware capabilities. "It's impressive speed, its ability to handle multiple resolutions on a single timeline, and its ability to leverage improvements in computer processor speeds makes Avid's DNA architecture an impressive and thoughtful next step in the company's ongoing product development," says Porter.
Avid Technology; www.avid.com

Sporting a new logo and several productivity enhancements, Discreet 3ds max 6 attracted much attention during its official launch at SIGGRAPH 2003. The newest version of Discreet's modeling, animation, and rendering solution incorporates such innovations as a ragdoll/virtual stuntman system, a vertex painting tool, schematic view, Shell Modifier, and skin utilities. "This package has evolved into one of the most robust and easy-to-use 3D applications on the market," explains Maestri. "The addition of mental ray rounds out its wide array of renderers available, and the new Particle Flow module makes it a formidable special-effects application."
Discreet; www.discreet.com

Developers have an increased interest in character-based physics, thanks in part to Havok in the UK. Its Havok 2 physics-based technology adds a new sense of realism and a new level of interactivity and immersion to games. Havok 2 is capable of processing interactions between CG characters and their environment in real time, adding to a character's believability. Already employed in popular game titles, Havok also is powering such solutions as Discreet's reactor and plasma, Adobe's Atmosphere, and Macromedia's Director 8.5 and Shockwave3D.
Havok; www.havok.com

Among the computer graphic elements that are the most difficult to reproduce and simulate realistically is hair. Yet Joe Alter's Shave and a Haircut 2.0 plug-in software for Alias Systems' Maya makes it look easy. Says Maestri, "Joe Alter has created a hair and fur module for Maya that trumps Maya's own hair module. The package allows for a wide degree of control over hair and integrates well with Maya, mental ray, and Renderman." Now in Version 2.0, Shave and a Haircut enables users to control the population, placement, appearance, and texture of a character's CG hair.
Joe Alter; www.joealter.com

This year, Kaydara upgraded its real-time 3D character animation software with the release of MotionBuilder 5. The greatest addition is perhaps the story timeline designed to enable the editing of 3D animation tracks in combination with audio, video, and constraints. In addition to a built-in clip-art library and drag-and-drop functionality, MotionBuilder 5 includes a photorealistic rendering engine, Kaydara's HumanIK character technology, and enhanced support for quadruped characters, hand-floor constraints, finger and toe controls, squash and stretch, and added neck bone controls. "Kaydara has not only dropped the price, but also added many features to its motion-editing technology," mentions Maestri. "Anyone who does a lot of character animation will be pleased as to how easy Kaydara has made the process of creating and managing motion." MotionBuilder 5 and MotionBuilder 5 Professional are shipping for Windows 200 and XP or Mac OS.10.2 and higher systems.
Kaydara; www.kaydara.com

During NAB2003, Media 100 debuted Version 2.0 of its 844/X real-time vertical editing system. Called The Finishing Release, Version 2.0 includes a new color-correction tool set, which provides users not only a split-screen Viewer Window for comparing clip versions, but also control over shadows, mid-tones, and highlights. The Finishing Release also boasts new variable-speed motion effects, audio-for-video support, and matte design and rotoscoping functionality. The latest version supports Xblur, an option for the 844/X and what is said to be the industry's first real-time, 10-bit, 50-pixel Gaussian Blur capability. Xblur, made up of embedded software and a high-density BFX PCI card, adds Gaussian Blur to concurrent real-time effects supported by the 844/X system.
Media 100; www.media100.com

Classified by Robertson as "clever, physics-based animation software," NaturalMotion's endorphin Virtual Motion Capture Studio takes a new tack on, and also speeds the creation of, character actions intended for games and films. Thanks to the company's Active Character Technology, endorphin not only simulates the physical body of a human, but also adds real-time intelligence and AI motor control. Users simply direct the character's actions and, when satisfied, export the motion-capture data, which is reportedly pure and without jitters or occlusions. And endorphin's character can perform moves not possible with traditional motion-capture performers, such as extreme stunts or the severing of limbs. According to Jenny Donelan, endorphin is intelligent animation for digital characters. "Very quick and powerful, it is a good tool for game developers, as well as a potential replacement for mocap."
NaturalMotion; www.naturalmotion.com

NXN alienbrain Studio is a flexible asset management tool offering support of an impressive variety of file formats and objects, whether 3D models, textures, video, audio, office documents, or source code. Well suited to digital entertainment, 2D and 3D graphics, multimedia, Web development, and other projects, alienbrain Studio is a PC-based system offering security and organizational tools, as well as support and an understanding of the development process. A sampling of alienbrain Studio users includes Sony, Electronic Arts, LucasArts, and Atari.
NXN Software; www.nxn-software.com

According to Maestri, Splutterfish's Brazil Version 1.2 is one of the most advanced renderers on the market today. "The package supports a number of advanced features, including subsurface scattering, which enables truly realistic skin," he explains. Brazil 1.2's enhancements include advanced shadow plug-ins, an advanced skin shader, and an improved Brazil Toon shader. Moreover, the latest version offers full integration with Discreet's 3ds max Versions 3 through 6 and Autodesk's VIZ visualization software.
Splutterfish; www.splutterfish.com

Ultimatte Corporation introduced its all-digital compositing system, Ultimatte 10, during IBC 2003. The new version incorporates a novel matte logic engine complete with AdvantEdge algorithms, an innovative technique for blue-screen traveling matte extraction that ensures high-quality mattes. Among the system's features are an eight-input router, full RGB foreground and background color controls with ambiance, and flare suppression controls. "Ultimatte 10 has advanced the state of the art of digital matte technology," says Donelan. "It handles fine details, enabling the creation of very detailed composites."
Ultimatte Corporation; www.ultimatte.com

Advancements in graphics accelerators garnered much attention during the past year. As Barbara Robertson notes, "Graphics cards are far and away the most important thing happening in the industry today, setting the stage and building the foundation for everything else."

Touted as the company's highest-performance workstation graphics accelerator, ATI's Fire GL X2-256 combines 256mb of DDR II graphics memory and hardware-accelerated rendering using OpenGL.Shading Language and DirectX 9 HLSL to bring fast 3D performance and high-quality graphics to DCC.professionals. Powered by the FGL.9800 VPU, the new graphics card offers an 8-pixel pipeline architecture, full-scene anti-aliasing, dual DVI-I connectors, SmartShader 2.1, SmoothVision 2.1, and more.
ATI Technologies; www.ati.com

Powering Discreet's smoke 6 standard-definition online editing and finishing system, Nvidia's Quadro FX 3000G incorporates Frame lock and Genlock. Whereas Frame lock enables the synchronization of multiple workstations' display channels, Genlock assists in the synchronization of graphics output to an external source. The card's architecture features three parallel vertex engines, a new line engine, eight programmable pixel pipelines, a DDR2 graphics DRAM bus, and the industry's first on-chip vertex cache.
Nvidia; www.nvidia.com

With an impressive 512mb of on-board graphics memory, 3Dlabs' Wildcat VP990 Pro is built to provide cinematic rendering, as well as high performance and reliability. Targeted at DCC.professionals, the graphics accelerator sports a Visual Processing Architecture that combines more than 200 32-bit processors into a single VPU. Complete with 10-bit DACs, the Wildcat VP990 Pro also is capable of driving two independent digital or analog displays.
3Dlabs; www.3dlabs.com

In many contests, some nominees miss by only a very narrow margin. Absolute Character Tools from cgCharacter, designed to ease the process of rigging and animating realistic characters, is one program that nearly made the cut. "With the release of Absolute Character Tools," notes Maestri, "the company brings muscle-based deformations used by major studios to the masses." Also rated highly by the judges was Macromedia Flash MX, which features significant enhancements to its Flash software. Another top contender was the 3DBoxx workstation from Boxx Technologies. Of the new system, Maestri says, "The first true 64-bit workstation, 3D Boxx features dual processors and truly demonstrates where the future of 3D workstations is headed."