The rise in the use of game engines to create content and applications has emphasized a longtime challenge of putting CAD data to work: how to port heavy CAD data for use in other mediums such as animation, interior design, analysis, and now VR app development. As the technology du jour, VR is helping push innovation in data exchange methodologies for heavy content, but so is interest in making rendered walkthroughs, product animations, and so forth.
Certainly, VR has an appeal for consumers and a use case for entertainment content creation, though the most promising markets for VR is in engineering, design, and AEC. While it may seem that VR has inspired new applications, there is a long history of development behind professional visualization that is being enriched by real-time rendering technology and game development tools. VR is another enhancement for the display, replacing CAVEs or flat PC screens.
Putting CAD models to work in digital environments can be labor-intensive and has fallen to specialists who have figured out their own ways to condition models - reduce them to the visible essential data needed and export them into the desired software for further work, such as animation, rendering, content authoring, and so on.
The renewed fascination around interactive 3D, thanks to the game industry and VR, has created new users and developers. And over the last 10 years or so, a younger generation has grabbed the tools of the game industry to create content. And in 2017, the industry has seen the arrival of new tools to link the world of CAD with the tools of content creation.
Epic, maker of the Unreal Engine, announced its acquisition of Datasmith at SIGGRAPH 2017. The tool was originally introduced at SIGGRAPH 2016 as MUS (Motiva Unreal Scene). Datasmith enables structured transfers of necessary data from CAD models to game engines, where the data can be used in content creation. It supports 20 CAD and digital content creation sources, as well as modeling and animation tools such as Autodesk 3ds Max.
As an interesting side note, the Datasmith effort is being led by former Autodesk director Ken Pimentel, who has a good deal of experience in professional visualization and animation.
Last summer, Epic announced plans to offer the Datasmith toolbox through a private beta program. Epic has been saying that the ability to work in real time with rendering is the game changer for game engines, but without good ways to get and manage content, the game never really gets started.
At Autodesk University late last year - where the Unreal team pitched its engine for use with CAD data in manufacturing, AEC, and content creation - Marc Petit, general manager of Unreal Engine Enterprise at Epic Games, told the audience that Unreal customers want real time in every aspect of content creation. "They don't just want [Chaos Group's] V-Ray in real time, they want everything: the physics, the materials … everything." And, that means dealing with lots of data - but only the necessary data.
Petit added they have also found that customers don't want to pay for services to get the data into Unreal Engine. "That's why we bought Datasmith," he said.
Unreal has also been able to incorporate Alembic into its pipeline to deal with assets from 3D animation.
Datasmith helps users import models with all the necessary components - including assembly components, surfaces, materials, physics, and animations - into Unreal Engine, with assets organized in a way the application understands and users can see and understand.
The dirty little secret about transferring CAD models for use in other applications is that it's difficult. How difficult depends on the applications, their friendliness to each other, and the complexity of the data.
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Autodesk bought Kaydara back in 2006. The company had a real-time, online content creation suite called Filmbox, which used the FBX format for data exchange between modules and outside applications, including Autodesk's. Autodesk has since fine-tuned FBX for easy data transfer.
In addition, Autodesk bought Bitsquid for its game engine. Renamed Stingray, Bitsquid was added to Autodesk's growing arsenal of game development tools. Unfortunately, Autodesk's timing was not great, nor was its implementation. Autodesk seemed uncertain about whether to support Stingray as a product to develop applications using content created in its tools, or to plunder the technology for its products Max, Maya, and Flame.
The interconnection with the CAD world didn't fully materialize, either. Autodesk introduced Project Expo as a tool to transfer Revit files to Stingray, but it seems to have foundered early.
In the end, Autodesk announced that Stingray would be shut down. The company said customers were looking to Unity and Unreal to develop interactive applications. One of the arguments Autodesk made on its website is that the commercial engines are being continuously enhanced for customers and are adapting to changing markets. The implication being that Autodesk could not keep up the same level of updates for markets that were not critical to Autodesk.
In October 2017, Autodesk and Unity announced a strategic partnership to more easily enable data exchange of content created in Autodesk's tools.
But, what about Epic? Epic claims that early beta participants working with Datasmith rather than FBX have seen productivity gains of up to 70 percent, and that Datasmith enables them to work with a high-fidelity scene in Unreal Engine that is visually consistent with what they are trying to achieve in the finished product.
Also at SIGGRAPH last year, Lightworks announced a new product called Slipstream, which isn't so much a product as a service bundle, to address the same sorts of problems being addressed by Datasmith.
The Lightworks crew has a long history of providing integrated rendering within design and engineering products from Autodesk, PTC, IMSI, Dassault, Siemens, and so on. According to Lightworks' David Forrester, the demand for rendering has accelerated thanks to increased interest in virtual reality and the increasing usability of game engines for non-gaming content. Game engines let customers get all their assets in one environment, where they can be "directed."
Today, Lightworks uses the Nvidia Iray technology as the rendering end of its system. And, as a longtime provider of rendering back ends - its own, and now Iray - the company has integrated rendering in multiple PLM products. It did some of its early development work for Slipstream with Siemens, which uses Lightworks Iray in its CAD programs. Lightstream understands CAD pipelines and the complexities inherent in CAD models. What Lightworks wants to do, says Forrester, is help its customers streamline the data to get a "visual BOM" (bill of materials).
Lightworks has approached the creation of Slipstream as a service plus technology, depending on the end use requirements and the types of models. At the end of the process, customers then have an easy-to-use recipe for getting models out of CAD and into a game engine. Forrester says that once they have helped a company create a Slipstream pipeline, it often inspires the customer to come back for different end uses in VR, AR, and rendering.
The beauty of Slipstream, says Lightworks CTO David Hutchinson, is that companies can work with their own intellectual property, without having to send it off to an agency to create a visualization or application, and they retain the ability to change up the work, redo, and repeat.
Foundry's Project Bunsen
Foundry found out a lot about the complexity of CAD data with its acquisition of Luxology in 2012. Luxology had been trying to expand its market for its modeling and animation tools by offering visualization tools to designers.
After the Foundry acquisition, the company took a look at the challenge by adding its own understanding of pipeline development. From its work in compositing, special effects, asset management, rendering, and even AR/VR content development, Foundry has created Project Bunsen, developed originally for the AEC industry - which, again, wants to have a way for people to understand buildings and other projects.
However, the amazing thing about the current times we're living through is that even as companies work on developing products, the requirements coming from customers are shifting with advancing capabilities. Bunsen is seen as a tool for all types of design and engineering customers who might want to create a visualization, and even as the end purpose for the visualizations might be changing, the basic requirements are pretty simple.
The process of getting data out of CAD and into a creative platform requires the data to be simplified and delivered in a structured way. The process has to be scalable and repeatable. Foundry uses the cloud to process data and ensure scalability.
As people try to use CAD models, they're always faced with translating the data into usable forms by other software programs. There have been plenty of translators developed for this purpose, and usually they are used in conjunction with other tools to help move the data along the pipeline.
Tools like Datasmith, Slipstream, and Project Bunsen are actually the culmination of work that's been going on for a long time to try and make the system of design to visualization easier and more predictable. The general-purpose use of game engines has become one more very useful tool because game engines enable artists and developers to work within a visual environment to create interactive content.
If VR and AR were to go away - which no, no, they're not! - there would still be a need for these tools, and as a result of their existence now, CAD models are going to become more widely used in marketing, entertainment, sales, virtual design ... you name it.
Kathleen Maher is a contributing editor to CGW, a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, CA-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia, and editor in chief of JPR's"TechWatch." She can be reached at Kathleen@jonpeddie.com.