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Jeremy Birn reports from NAB 2000 in Las Vegas.
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The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Convention brought together TV and radio broadcasters, multimedia content creators, and hardware and software vendors to Las Vegas, Nevada.  Everything from satellite uplink trucks to HDTV production equipment was being demonstrated, tested, and compared by the attendees in the Las Vegas Convention Center.  For a 3dRender enthusiast, most of the software exhibits were located in the Sands Expo Center, at NAB's Multi-Media World.

NewTek showed Lightwave[6] at it's booth, and announced a new "patch" [6]B, which is supposed to speed-up rendering, and adds or improves several modeling and rendering features.  Lightwave's renderer has long been respected as a production-capable raytracer, and with version 6 NewTek extended it's capabilities to include global illumination functions.  (Global illumination is a general term for indirect lighting, including techniques like radiosity and effects like caustics.)  While many lower-cost programs support radiosity for diffuse-to-diffuse light bounces (including POV Ray and Truespace), Lightwave also can also render caustic effects (Caustics article) and uniquely supports High Dynamic Range Images (related web link) as a source of illumination.  Especially important at a broadcaster's convention, NewTek was touting its Toaster 2 and Aura paint/compositing system, and their integration with Lightwave.  Grateful guests to the NewTek booth were also treated to Krispy Kreme donuts (picture) while supplies lasted.

Alias|Wavefront had a lot to show at its booth.  Adapting technology from their unique "Paint Effects" into 2D, Alias|Wavefront announced a Paint Effects plug-in for Adobe After Effects and Maya Fusion.  While the plug-in obviously couldn't do everything that 3D paint effects on 3D NURBS curves could do, they seemed to support animation and to offer some unique creative possibilities.  They were demoing Paint Effects in a "Finger Paint" arrangement, on an interactive touch-screen.

The main focus of the software demos, however, was the first public preview of Maya version 3 (link to press release).  The new Trax function (A|W's attempt to compete with Softimage's Non-Linear Animation) looks good from the demo, especially in its easy support for splitting and re-merging clips.  Maya's Artisan has also been extended to provide true 3D paint capabilities, in addition to its the many other functions that now use it's brush-based interface.  In the rendering department, there appears to be a number of improvements, including vastly superior displacement map rendering, and new render pass support that automatically can render different layers of objects, isolate shadows and other render passes into different image directories, and improved integration with Maya Fusion for compositing.

Among the new features are new subdivision surface support. In the current Maya 2.5, the subdivision surfaces are very limited, and cannot be directly rendered without being converted into polygons.  In 3.0, they look very useful, and will finally give Maya's already-excellent NURBS and polygon modeling functions a run for their money.  A|W claimed that theirs are "true" subdivision surfaces, while other brands are not, but did not back-up that claim by explaining what they meant, nor did they show how theirs would function differently in any situation, so that claim left most of us in the audience confused.  The modeling tools, display, and interface for their subdivs did look good, and any polygon mesh can be designated as a subdivision surface, just like other leading brands. Polygon tools also seemed to be improved, with better texture wrapping controls for their explicit UVs.

The best news all was that the batch renderer with Maya 3 can render on an unlimited number of processors, without the need to buy any more licenses!  This might not be news for Lightwave and Max users, but is a first for Alias|Wavefront, and Softimage still comes with only 1 or 2 Mental Ray licenses depending on configuration.

Discreet Logic was showing several of its compositing and effects systems, including Flint, Flame, and Inferno - the Flame system is Discreet's main claim to fame among broadcasters.

Also on display was a demo of the Mental Ray renderer working with 3D Studio Max.  Mental Ray is a rendering engine from Mental Images, which is bundled with Softimage 3D, but previously could not be used with 3D Studio Max.  Ever since Mental Images and Kinetix started working together on NURBS technology, there have been rumors and speculation about when Mental Ray would be available to render Max scenes.  Now that it is available, the connection provides Max users with a very high quality, accurate raytracer, with beautiful soft shadows, true 3D depth of field and motion blur, and photon mapped global illumination for indirect light bounces and caustic effects.  It looked very easy to use, because Mental Ray has been programmed to emulate Max's textures, shading, and lighting settings, so that existing scenes can be rendered directly in Mental Ray, with only a few new control panels for parameters that are unique to Mental Ray.

However, there were some very serious flaws and limitations, that could stop most people from adopting the combination.  Mental Ray is a programmable renderer, and many of the capabilities that appear when it is used with Softimage (such as having a choice of faster 2D or true 3D motion blur) actually rely on proprietary code added by Softimage, so they are missing in the Max version.  To a Softimage user, this Mental Ray would seem to be gutted of most of it's features.  Also notably lacking in comparison to Twister/XSI interactive rendering or previewing.  No control was provided to the user to assign or configure custom shaders, which are the basis of Mental Ray's functionality, although they were demonstrating one Volumetric plug-in slated to ship later this year.  You could expect longer rendering times with Mental Ray than with the Max renderer, even before you start turning on any of Mental Ray's fancier effects.  No control was available to use Mental Ray for pre-lighting (there was no way to export its global illumination solution as texture maps or vertex coloring for use in realtime or native-max renders.)  The connection software for Max, including one Mental Ray license, is $4000, and additional licenses of Mental Ray would need to be purchased separately if you wanted to distribute the rendering to more than one machine.

Softimage was located in a section of the Avid booth in the main Convention Center, instead of the Multi-Media World hall where other graphics-related exhibits took place.  This put Softimage a short bus-trip away from all of its competitors, and may have hidden it from some shoppers.  Softimage was demonstrating a beta version of their upcoming Softimage|XSI product (formerly known as Sumatra).  They performed demonstrations featuring it's Animation Mixer and Render Tree windows.  An earlier beta of Sumatra was shown at SIGGRAPH 99 (click for SIGGRAPH 99 article.)  Also on display was Softimage's Digital Studio compositing product, which in version 3 now offers a configuration for HDTV resolution.

Apple Computer has been staging a John Travolta-style comeback over the past few years, turning itself from a has-been back into a star.  Apple's large booth demonstrated its range of computers for content development and non-linear editing.  Apple's G4 computers are some of the fastest machines on the market, and are very well suited to demanding editing, compositing, and image processing applications.  Final Cut Pro (Apple's non-linear editing software) has been earning consistently high marks from professional users, with speed and power that some put ahead of much higher priced Avid systems.  The $1000 price tag on Final Cut Pro seemed especially low when compared to the $4000 LCD monitors that Apple was demonstrating it on.  A fast, firewire-equipped Powerbook was being billed as a "Portable Movie Studio" and was also attracting a great deal of professional interest as a portable non-linear editing system.  Companies are becoming more and more willing to mix operating systems, and choose the best tool for each job, even if it means compositing on Windows NT, and editing on a Mac.

Several booths were demonstrating hardware and software for virtual sets around live actors.  Most used realtime camera tracking to match camera moves, in combination with traditional bluescreen or greenscreen technology to remove the background behind the actor.  Reflected light from blue screens poses the problem of blue spill, as seen below the actor's elbow in the first picture.  Play's new Holoset technology used a new alternative to bluescreens, which appeared to be ordinary black fabric to the naked eye.  However, it was a special lenticular cloth designed to be highly retro-reflective, such that it appeared to be glowing white when shot with a camera flash, and black under ordinary lighting.  This kind of backdrop is photographed with special cameras, surrounded by a ring of pulsing lights, which allow the background to be removed behind an actor, with no blue spill and no need for special lighting.

Optical motion capture was being used at several booths.  In the past, while optical capture has been considered to be of higher quality than magnetic (and didn't require wires like magnetic sensors) it was more limited in its realtime capture abilities.  MotionAnalysis was showing their optical motion capture system performing realtime capture on two actors at once, with no apparent problems of markers being blocked from view, and character motion that looked reasonably accurate with no clean-up or editing.  Vicon was showing a new model of camera for use with optical mocap, which featured a megapixel resolution, to track smaller markers or more complex scenes.

Like Hollywood studios racing to make the next summer blockbuster, Las Vegas casinos have been producing their own big-budget spectacles over the past few years.  Paris Las Vegas (picture) adds an Eiffel Tower replica to the Las Vegas Skyline, while New York New York (picture) houses thousands of guests in a reproduction of New York City's most famous landmarks.  The shopping and restaurant areas of the Venetian Casino boast canals, bridges, and courtyards, under a painted blue sky.  Despite its growth, Las Vegas still has its tradition seedy side, and a range of entertainment not overlooked by convention attendees.  Other new thematic casinos were still under construction, such as the Aladdin, which should be opened by NAB 2001.

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This article and included photographs are Copyright © 2000 by Jeremy Birn.  Please do not duplicate without written permission.