All-Natural Animation
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 3 (March 2004)

All-Natural Animation

For years, we’ve been waving the flag that the visualization and simulation market has been one of the most dynamic in the computer graphics industry. Now, the latest research confirms that the trend is continuing. According to a new 3D Visualization and Simulation report from Acacia Research Group, sales of products and services to viz/siz markets—including scientific and medical, defense and government, design and engineering, and industry and business segments—will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 16 percent through 2007.

The main reasons for this solid upswing are obvious. No other technique has been as valuable in helping researchers explore data by visualizing the otherwise invisible. But recently, simulations and visualizations have been finding their way out of research labs and into mainstream applications. Indeed, scientifically accurate CG animations have been appearing in everything from television news and special programming to presentations to corporate and government funding agencies.

Some of the most dramatic examples have been the animations created to explain the recent Mars mission to a non-technical audience. In fact, one of these, an "engineering-accurate" CG animation of the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, is part of the testimony that NASA is scheduled to present to the US Congressional Science, Technology, and Space Subcommittee about the technology used in NASA's Mars Exploration Program (see

The animation, created for NASA by Analytical Mechanics Associates in Hampton, Virginia, drew on telemetry information received during Spirit's actual landing and assigned it to the elements of the CG craft, including its parachute, shield, lander, and so forth. The animation team combined that with actual terrain data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter to depict the entire sequence, from parachute deployment to the final landing, when the airbag-shrouded craft bounced across the surface of Mars and ground to a halt with its base pedal in optimal position. Besides being shown to Congress, this and similar animations have been shown in TV programs, print publications, and Web sites.

Until recently, space scientists had to rely solely on artists' renditions to convey information about space missions—since, obviously, no cameras have been on hand to record the events. Similarly, many others have used conceptual animations to explain technical information. In fact, one need only look at the dubious history of television commercial animations, which explain the secret workings of everything from floor wax to breath mints, to see some creative examples.

There is certainly a place for artistic animations. They can be more entertaining and more humorous, and they can do a better job of inspiring and making one believe in a general idea, notes Rob Kline, group leader at Analytical Mechanics Associates. "But real visualizations are easier to believe because they're based on actual data," he says. "The Spirit entry, descent, and landing animation is being used to explain the technology and prove that it worked. It's a virtual video playback of what happened."

The need for visualizations and simulations will continue to expand, not only from the traditional vis/sim community, but also from non-technical segments of the CG industry. If animators meet this demand, they can help create a more visually literate and better informed public—as well as a whole new market for themselves.

Phil LoPiccolo