Spotlight - 1/03
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 1 (Jan 2003)

Spotlight - 1/03

SpeedTreeRT, the latest addition to Interactive Data Visualization's (IDV's) line of tree creation software products, is optimized for game and simulation development. The program comes with a library of more than 90 trees based on 30 different core species. So that the trees can be edited and animated in real time, SpeedTree models are composed of relatively few polygons (trees, with their many leaves and branches, tend to be polygon-heavy). Adjustable wind effects are also included.

SpeedTree, according to its manufacturer, occupies a middle ground between trees that don't require many computer resources but don't look realistic and extremely realistic trees that need lots of resources. Keith Bell, digital media specialist with d2 Digital Designs in Dallas, took advantage of this "middle ground" when faced with a real estate development project that required a digital model of a 2-square-mile site with 26 buildings and thousands of trees. "With SpeedTree, I was able to populate the site with over 10,000 trees and still keep my file size manageable," he says. Although Bell had on hand an application that would have created 2D trees of modest file size, "the beauty of SpeedTree was that it allowed my project to be fully animated—you could view the 3D trees from above and around."

IDV makes SpeedTreeMax and SpeedTreeViz, plug-ins for Discreet's 3ds max and Autodesk's viz products, as well as SpeedTreeCAD, a Windows application used to create and edit animated trees in real time. The SpeedTreeRT SDK, which sells for an average of $5995 per title, includes copies of SpeedTreeCAD and SpeedTreeMax. SpeedTreeMax and Viz sell for $395 each (at The standalone version of SpeedTreeCAD is scheduled for a Q1 release at a price not yet determined. —Jenny Donelan

Interactive Data Visualization;

Image courtesy Interactive Data Visualization

products simulation

Digital Anarchy has introduced two natural phenomena 3D plug-ins for Apple's Final Cut Pro—Psunami and Aurora Sky. Both packages were already available for Adobe Systems' After Effects, and Psunami runs with Discreet's combustion as well.

Psunami for Final Cut Pro is a tool for making photorealistic, raytraced water simulations both above and below the water's surface. Psunami's texture and displacement mapping can also be used to create non-aqueous phenomena such as sand, grass, snow, and other landscape effects. The program's flexible geometry enables users to extrude logos and fly a camera through Psunami scenes.

Aurora Sky for Final Cut Pro creates photorealistic clouds and skies. Clouds can be shaped using grayscale movies or images, and textures can be applied directly to clouds, enabling words or shapes to project from the sky. Aurora Sky can also create volumetric clouds through which a camera can fly. Lighting features include time-of-day adjustments, two 'suns' that allow for various dramatic lighting effects, and the ability to create a tracking layer so that other lighting filter packages can be easily composited within Aurora Sky scenes.

Psunami costs $149 and Aurora Sky, $129. Both packages are available for Mac OS 9 and X. —JD

Digital Anarchy;

Image courtesy Digital Anarchy

products animation

Softimage has announced a new behavioral animation system that allows animators to create "intelligent" crowds of 3D characters. The Softimage|Behavior system, which features a direct pipeline to Softimage|XSI, provides users with the ability to quickly choreograph animated crowds of people, animals, or objects that are able to respond "intuitively" to other characters or objects in their environments.

Animators can control each character in a simulation through a combination of graphical editing, scripting, and debugging tools, in addition to a library of predefined behaviors. Characters with unique "brains" can be created, so that each one responds and interacts to its environment in particular ways. The system's integrated character engine also has real-time IK, animation blending and warping, dynamic path planning, and automatic obstacle avoidance.

Softimage|Behavior is also designed to increase productivity over methods such as motion capture or traditional animation by enabling small sets of generic animations to be used to create character-specific behaviors across large crowd scenes. A generic walk cycle applied to thousands of different characters, for example, would produce thousands of different, non-intersecting characters in, for example, a battle scene. The software has already been used in production environments such as the television miniseries Napoleon (see "A Napoleonic Quest," pg. 24, October 2002). The Softimage|Behavior System costs $14,995. — JD


Image courtesy Softimage

products asset management

Version 6.0 of NXN Software's alienbrain asset management software enables software developers and digital artists to coordinate both source code and imagery within the same system. Major additions include advanced software configuration management features, a bundled version of Araxis Merge Professional (a visual file comparison and merging program), and integration with Microsoft VisualStudio .NET and Metrowerks CodeWarrior. According to the company, NXN alienbrain 6.0 is the first terabyte-scalable system to handle both asset and configuration management. This new capability is designed to provide development teams with a single framework with which to work together on projects such as films, television shows, and games.

The new release includes full branching, branch merging, sharing, and structural history to its features. Additional capabilities tailored to software developers include command line tools, and change reporting, as well as the aforementioned integration with VisualStudio and CodeWarrior.

The Developer, Designer, and Manager Clients of NXN alienbrain are available for $690, $990, and $1990 respectively. —JD

NXN Software;

Image courtesy NXN.Software

products video editing

The 844/Xi editing and compositing system from Media 100 is the newest member of the company's 844/X family. Two system configurations—844/Xe and 844/Xi—are now available. Both provide editing and real-time compositing and effects with 10-bit imaging. Both also operate on a standard PC. The 844/Xe has eight real-time streams—four video plus four full-motion alpha—as well as real-time compositing using keys and transfer modes and use of unlimited layers with viewing and manipulation of any four non-contiguous layers simultaneously in real time.

The newer 844/Xi includes four real-time streams—two video plus two full-motion alpha—that can rapidly process layered graphics, video, and other media. Any two layers can be viewed and manipulated simultaneously in real time. Pricing for the 844/Xi, including hardware and software, starts at $24,995. —JD

Media 100;

Photo courtesy Media 100.

user focus web

Each Sunday millions of people tune in to the hit television drama Alias to watch the young, daring double agent Sydney Bristow as she outwits and outfights enemies, including the very people she works for at the rogue spy organization SD-6. Now, devoted Alias viewers can relive highlights from the show with a new kind of digital video-based screen saver.

The Windows- and Mac-compatible imagery can be downloaded free at

com/primetime/alias/downloads/ciadownloads.html. Users can choose between a light version, which is a standard slide show-style offering, and a robust version, which pushes the boundaries of traditional screen savers by incorporating actual video from the television series. Both were created by Digital Bucket, a creative branch of the Metropolitan Hodder Group that specializes in interactive and emerging media development.

According to Eric Long, Digital Bucket's IT director, the video-based screen saver starts as a storyboard that springs to life with animated transitions from one video segment to another. To create the desktop sequence, the team first digitized video clips from the TV series and converted them to a usable desktop format, since motion video in a screen saver requires significant processing power.

"It's easy to use great-quality video, but then you risk having a file that is too big to download from the Web," says Long. To ensure that the video grabs were compatible with the desktop applications, the Digital Bucket group acquired high-quality video so the final compressed elements would look acceptable on the benchmark (lowest common denominator) computer. This was done by digitizing each video segment in an uncompressed format to retain near-master quality, then bringing the uncompressed data into Adobe Systems' After Effects for conversion to the video format used in the screen saver. Next, the video elements were imported into Macromedia's Flash, where they were compressed and incorporated into the screen saver layout. The artists also used Adobe's Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects to create animated transitions between the video segments. —Karen Moltenbrey

Key Tools: After Effects, Adobe Systems
Flash, Macromedia

ABC is offering an Alias screen saver that uses video from the TV series.

user focus digital video

What do chimps and humans have in common? More than you might think.

Recently, Boston-based Viewpoint Studios completed a worldwide on-air promotion for Discovery Networks International's special week of programming called Chimps Like Us. The broadcast campaign takes a playful look at the similarities between humans and their nearest animal cousin.

"It wasn't difficult to fulfill the client's request to make the spot playful," says producer Adrienne Gum. Still, the group wanted to make a serious human-chimp comparison. Therefore, Viewpoint decided not to play up the antics of chimps engaging in typical human behavior. Instead, the group chose to show chimps in their native environment—the jungle—and show how their natural body language and facial expressions were similar to that of humans.

To that end, the artists used a Sony 3CCD camera to capture the facial expressions of a diverse group of people as they smiled, laughed, pouted, and so forth. The client, meanwhile, provided the group with similar examples of chimp expressions. Next, the team edited the video using Discreet's Smoke running on an SGI Octane. With Discreet's Flame, the artists combined the human and chimp facial elements onto a series of four-quadrant, modular screens to create an abstract image.

Despite the similarities between the chimps and humans, lining up the eyes, noses, and mouths in the quad splits was challenging, notes Flame artist David DiNisco. To account for those differences, as well as the wide range within the key facial points among the human models, the artists employed the warping tools within Flame for making adjustments to the imagery. —KM

Key Tool: Flame, Discreet

For a TV campaign, artists mixed human and chimp facial elements and displayed them on a four-quadrant screen.

user focus games

Electrofiction is emerging from the shadows of independent game development with its first computer game—an online title for the PC called Shadows of Winter, a third-party modification of Gas Powered Games' Dungeon Siege fantasy role-playing game. Set in the Kingdom of Elurn, Shadows of Winter takes place during a civil war between various noble houses. Assuming the role of the son or daughter of a noble lord, the player journeys from his or her childhood home into the wilderness of the northern kingdom, where an ancient and long-forgotten race of immortals is awakening. Although a fantasy title, Shadows of Winter features a rich, detailed, realistic world filled with various creatures, both old and new.

Yet, achieving the desired realism in the 3D imagery presented a challenge for the team's 12 members, who met online through the Planet Dungeon Siege forum and formed a cooperative to create the new title in their spare time. (The group is hoping the project will enable them to acquire full-time jobs in the commercial game industry.) With too little time to generate the targeted realism in their models, the artists instead adapted their character models from Daz Productions' pre-assembled Victoria, Michael, and Stephanie Millennium Figure models, which they modified in Discreet's 3ds max.

"Daz scanned real people and turned them into 3D meshes," says lead artist Chris Fisk. "So, using the Daz models afforded us anatomical accuracy that we wouldn't have been able to achieve on our own, even after months of modeling."

Once the artists achieved the desired model morphs, they animated the revised characters in Curious Labs' Poser. Next, the team employed LipSinc's Mimic, an automatic lip synchronization tool for Poser characters.

To augment the character models, the group generated realistic backgrounds with Planetside Software's Terragen and AnimaTek's World Builder Pro landscape-generation software. Finally, to complete and assemble the game levels, the group used Discreet's gmax software with the "Siegemax" plug-ins from Gas Powered Games, in addition to the developer's Siege Editor.

Shadows of Winter is expected to be available free early this year at and —KM

KEY TOOL: Millennium Figures, Daz Productions

Electrofiction created its characters from modified Daz models.

user focus broadcast

Imagination, when combined with computer graphics, can be extremely powerful, as an unsuspecting boy discovers in "How to Play," a TV commercial promoting's Jimmy Neutron Gotta Blast Rocket Race game.

The 60-second spot begins with a shot of Jimmy Neutron, a 3D non-photorealistic character created by Nickelodeon. The sequence then transitions to a real boy, who is sitting at his computer in his bedroom. Suddenly, the room is transformed into a rocket lab, and the boy uses the computer to design his own rocket ship, which materializes around him as he continues interacting with his computer. First, the outside shape of the rocket evolves in a wireframe format, then paint is applied. Finally, the rocket's canopy closes, and the boy blasts into space.

For the digital transformation, the team filmed the actor in front of a greenscreen, and built the entire photorealistic bedroom set in Alias|Wavefront's Maya, enabling the artists to create certain effects without expensive on-set rigging or tedious rotoscoping, says Black Logic's CG director Doug Johnson.

Black Logic also used Adobe Systems' After Effects and Apple Computer's Shake, formerly from Nothing Real, to composite the commercial.

"Not only are the effects believable," notes Johnson, "but there's a compelling story driving them, which is rare for a children's TV commercial." —KM
KEY TOOL: Maya, Alias|Wavefront

Images courtesy Black Logic.
To construct the CG rocket, the artists used wireframes and X-ray shaders in Maya.

technology art

Updating a composite painting style originally introduced during the Renaissance, computer scientists at Cornell University, Junhwan Kim and Fabio Pellancini, have developed an algorithm that can pack random 2D shapes, or "tiles," inside any desired outline to create "jigsaw image mosaics." The technique, an extension of one used to generate the ever-popular photomosaic pictures, slightly deforms tiles of chosen colors to fit them as tightly as possible inside segmented areas. In so doing, it can build larger 2D images, such as of the parrot (left), which incorporates some 1800 tile shapes. The method could also create 3D mosaics and be useful in packaging and related applications. —Phil LoPiccolo

Images ©2002 ACM, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

technology compression

A team of computer graphics researchers—Xianfeng Gu and Steven Gortler at Harvard and Hugues Hoppe at Microsoft—has devised a unique way to convert the geometry of irregular 3D surfaces that could lead to better image compression and rendering. Instead of representing surface geometry with triangles, the new approach remeshes the surface onto a square structure called a geometry image. Unlike irregular meshes, these images can be encoded using traditional compression techniques. According to the researchers, the key to the process is to cut paths along the surface of a 3D object so that the geometry, whose XYZ surface values are stored as RGB colors or normals, can be unfolded in a square array. The accompanying images show how the irregular surface of a 3D gargoyle (top) is sliced and converted to regular geometry images composed of RGB colors (middle) and a normal map (bottom). —PL

Images ©2002 ACM, Inc. and Microsoft. Reprinted by permission.

market outlook

by Jon Peddie

This is going to be one heck of an interesting time for graphics, with ATI's R300, Nvidia's NV30, 3Dlabs' P10, Trident's XP4, and Matrox's Parhelia—we haven't had so many great graphics chips all at once in many a year.

Nvidia may be a victim of its own success. By raising the awareness of the value and importance of good graphics, it has created a demand that has encouraged the competition and scared the OEMs, who don't want yet another 800-pound gorilla telling them what they should and shouldn't be doing.

Make no mistake, Nvidia is still way out in front. But consumers, in the PC market in particular, are a fickle group. Nvidia has done an unprecedented job of keeping the spotlight on itself with one stunning new product after another—on top of the highly coveted Xbox win. And Nvidia clearly gets credit for breaking Moore's Law, driving graphics to new heights and using more transistors than Intel. The forthcoming NV30 will continue that trend with a new GPU that will in all likelihood double or more the transistor count in a P4.

But transistors and benchmarks alone won't turn the trick, and Nvidia has another success to deal with: silicon budget. Intel, in its efforts to push the market and improve sales, has been steadily lowering its prices, and to a lesser extent AMD has followed suit. Nvidia, however, has been increasing the price of its GPUs, with the net result that it is taking more of the silicon budget than graphics used to, and at Intel's expense. Clearly, Intel (and Nvidia's new best friend, AMD) aren't going to stand for that. The other players—ATI, 3D/Creative Labs, and Matrox—will not be as aggressive (or bold) as Nvidia when it comes to pricing. And with GPU/VPUs that are in the same ballpark, Nvidia is going to have to adjust to a new reality.

Does that mean that we're going to see Matrox or 3D/Creative Labs suddenly take market share from Nvidia? No, not this year or next. How about ATI? Maybe. ATI is clearly back in the race, in a big way, and, for the first time in many quarters, Nvidia has some serious competition.

What does this portend? Great, killer, fantastic graphics from two or more powerhouse graphics companies, benchmark wars like you haven't seen in years, and aggressive pricing in a stagnant PC market. Get your tickets now and get comfortable—this is going to be a battle royal.

Jon Peddie is principal of Jon Peddie Research at