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Jeremy Birn reports from SIGGRAPH 99 in Los Angeles.

The floorshow in Los Angeles was much the same as usual - people ran into old friends and enemies, scooped up bags of literature they'll never get time to read, and scouted for party tickets.  A few subtle changes were evident: Kiki (while still appearing in cheesy realtime effects) now works for Play, even more booths than usual featured "motion-capture girls," and of course the version numbers were increased on most of the products.  Newtek's T-shirts advertised "The Joy of [ 6 ]."

A few of the booths had interesting things.  A program called "Freeform" was running that did interactive voxel modeling based on a 3D input-device.  The input-device had force-feedback to stop your stylus when you bumped into a surface in the 3D world, and allowed you to feel the force of pushing into the virtual clay.  The system costs $15,000 for the input hardware and modeling software, which was a bit too expensive for my use at home, but the effect was impressive.  I could feel the shape of a 3D model even with my eyes closed, well enough to locate grooves, corners, or surface imperfections.

A|W vs SI
For me, as a long-time user of both Alias|Wavefront and Softimage products, a major area of interest was the unveiling of beta 1 of Sumatra from SI, and the introduction of Maya version 2.5 from A|W.  After years of delays, the unveiling of Sumatra was Softimage's last big chance to compete with Maya and regain its reputation and market share.  Competition between the companies was clearly at an all-time high at this year's show.

Some Softimage employees sported "Anti | Alias" hats, while above the Alias|Wavefront booth, a fist with "Maya" written on each knuckle made it clear that they were going for a knock-out punch.

Both companies hosted Users Group meetings, giving them a chance to demonstrate their wares to their own customers in-depth, prior to the SIGGRAPH floorshow.  The Alias|Wavefront meeting was first, on the Sunday before the convention.  At the LA Sports Pavilion, about 3000 users gathered to see the latest from Alias|Wavefront.  The show featured a number of presentations of real productions, including the use of Maya's dynamic simulation in creating Pod Racer crashes in Star Wars, and many other user projects.  A presentation showing some of the R & D at A|W featured some interesting technologies they are working with, but the most impressive of the company's demonstrations was when Duncan Brinsmead showed the Paint Effects features that are built-in to Maya version 2.5.

Paint Effects fill a "Missing Link" between particles (points in space) and surface geometry, by applying the types of rendering techniques that are used to render particles, to rendering NURBS Curves ("Brush Strokes") that are 3D-painted into space.  The Brush Strokes can be rendered in natural media appearances like paint, and store variable widths or other attributes from painting on a pressure-sensitive table (with falloffs that are also editable through other means if you use a mouse.)  The Brush strokes can also appear as volumetric clouds and nebula, make atmosphere paintable with a sort of 3D airbrush, and do a terrific job of painting strands of hair coming off a head, or grass in a field.  Many of these things have traditionally been very slow to render, but the render times and realtime interaction were both very impressive, especially for scenes that would have required more detail than could fit into memory if traditionally modeled.

The Paint Effects demo kept getting better the more was shown.  The Brush Strokes can branch and emit other brush strokes or geometry in programmable (or preset and adjustable) ways, so that a tree trunk can emit branches that emit twigs that emit leaves, and entire fully-3D trees can be added as brushstrokes using a library of exisiting tree presets.  All the Paint elements animate and can be put in fields of turbulence to simulate wind and other dynamic effects.  The demo of trees and grass blowing in the wind, with rain and storm clouds also all created and animated with Paint Effects, was truly the most amazing software demo I've seen to date.  Paint Effects also supported painting curves onto surfaces that made painted bulges and textured protrusions grow out of the surface, as well as realtime natural-media painting onto geometry that affected different attributes, including creating alpha channel opacity when the eraser was used on parts of a model.  The structures of objects created entirely out of Paint Effects brush strokes self-shadowed and cast shadows into the scene, although they appeared to pop onto the rendering after the main geometry, being rendered in a direct non-tesselated way.  Practically everyone in the audience came out talking about the Paint Effects functionality, and how much the grass, trees, clouds, hair, 3D paint, and other applications would help their productions.  Paint Effects is one of those rare features that truly expands the scope of the tasks you could take-on in 3D, instead of just making some part of the process a little quicker or easier.

Other features demoed in Maya included IPR (Interactive Photorealistic Rendering) to give realtime previews of portions of the scene as textures and other attributes are adjusted.  Compared to Softimage's "Twister" technology, IPR didn't look very impressive.  Unlike the competing interactive-rendering technology from Softimage, IPR doesn't show any raytracing effects, and doesn't compute other aspects of the rendering.  While it is useful to see your procedural textures update on the actual surface, and adjust your depth-map shadows in realtime, I hope A|W continues developing and improving IPR into a more complete, full preview of the rendered final product.  The one competitive advantage that IPR will have over Softimage's interactive rendering is that IPR shipped first, while Softimage's interactive rendering won't ship until this winter, in Sumatra 1.0.

Softimage 3.8 SP2
A day later, the Softimage Users Group met.  Everyone was very interested in seeing Sumatra, but the more immediate SP2 release of Softimage 3.8 is actually a newsworthy event also.  3.8 SP2 is shipping this month (August 99), and includes several very important features, most notably a major upgrade to Mental Ray version 2.1 (up from MR 1.9 that shipped with SP1 of 3.8).  This new Mental Ray version is faster, it better optimizes the rendering of animation, it includes a new kind of depth-mapped shadows that correctly show motion-blurred objects in the depth map, and most importantly, it has global illumination (radiosity) and caustic rendering.  SP2 also introduces the Surface Continuity Manager, which is a first version of the type of NURBS Continuity tool that will be included with Sumatra.

The "Unveiling" of Sumatra
Even though "previews" of Softimage's long-overdue Sumatra product have been shown in public before, the "unveiling" of Beta 1 of Sumatra was the first public demonstration of an essentially feature-complete form of the product, which only needs to be developed and debugged for a few months before its release.  The overhauled product includes changes to Softimage's User Interface, Modeling, Animation, and Rendering.  A flier handed out to attendees gave a fetures-list, although not all of the features listed were actually shown in the demo.  You can download page 1, page 2, page 3, and page 4 if you're interested.  Page 4 includes the breakdown of the tiers of the Sumatra product, "Sumatra Essential," "Sumatra Advanced," and "Sumatra Specialist Options."

The look at the Sumatra beta did not stop with a demo at the Users Group meeting.  In a very rare move, Softimage held courses at partner booths on the show floor, which allowed anyone at the convention to sit down and try using beta 1 for themselves.

In the area of modeling, the Sumatra beta seemed to have made progress.  In addition to Polygon Meshes and individual NURBS Surfaces, it supports a type of "quilt" of NURBS surfaces seamlessly locked together, and they can be automatically smoothed, and can be animated and textured as one.  Essentially, the Surface Continuity Manager has been given its own geometry type, instead of just being a plug-in as we now know it.  The GAP (Generic Attribute Painting) functionality for selecting and defining clusters via an airbrush is not very original, and looks a lot like Maya's Artisan feature, but nonetheless seems like a useful addition to the interface.

Sumatra also has more complex and complete modeling relations, with nodes created for each step of a modeling process, that can be edited later, as well as also having a scripting language that records every operation into an editable script.  There's other things going on in the area of modeling, and in the new interface, but not everything was shown in the course on beta 1.

Character Animation
Character Animation has always been an area close to Softimage's heart, and Sumatra's many upgrades and new animation features reflect that.  The inverse kinematics have been tweaked and improved in many ways, including more control over built-in constraints, adding and deleting bones from chains, different types of IK solutions, and copying or relating character animation between characters with different skeletons.  The new animation mixing and blending functionality allow multiple channels of animation information to be applied to a character, and then be independently sequenced on a timeline, and blended or mixed together.  There was also a lot more control over keyframing specific elements within dialog boxes, linking any parameter in the scene to other paramters that control it, and making your own windows full of custom sliders and controls to drive characters or any other type of animation in your scene.

Effects Animation
Softimage said they would have particles, but had precious little to show in that area.  They also said they would have some kind of soft-body dynamics, but didn't demonstrate anything.  There was no cloth shown in Sumatra (although Reflection Fabrix, the makers of an extrordinary cloth plug-in for Softimage 3D, confirmed that there would be a Sumatra version.)  There was no demonstration of any new fur or hair solutions.  It is sad that these areas, already the victims of many years of neglect by Softimage, didn't seem to have been agressively pursued yet.  If Sumatra were shipping two years earlier, then a solid foundation that didn't have all the bells and whistles yet might have seemed like a good step forward.  But, with a ship date now scheduled for December 1999, Sumatra needs to be served-up with bells, whistles, and a little jar of mint jelly, if it wants to compete with Maya.

Sumatra is taking a huge leap forwards in the area of rendering.  At any time, you can drag a rectangle into an area of any 3D view, and see how that part of the scene (or the whole frame if you selected all of it) appears in a full-quality Mental Ray raytracing, including all shaders, displacement, raytracing, motion blur, global illumination, and anything else that would appear in your final output.  It updates fairly quickly as you make changes to your scene, such that you can tweak the index of refraction on an object, and watch how each value changes the final rendering interactively.  This acceleration of the feedback from the renderer will help produce much better quality, in much less time than the tweak-wait-repeat loop that 3D artists are often trapped in.

In previous versions of Softimage, the full power of Mental Ray wasn't realized, because of limitations in the old Softimage interface, especially in the area of layering and linking multiple textures together.  In Sumatra, a new shader-tree allows an unprecidented level of control over hierarchically linking shaders, textures, and other nodes and procedures, to define and modify surface appearances within the user interface in ways that previously would have taken custom shader programming to create.  Another interface feature in Sumatra, Render Passes, speeds the creation of different passes from the same scene, such as beauty passes, reflection passes, isolated shadows, etc.  An unlimited number of passes can be defined within the same scene, to switch between rendering each of them without needing multiple scene versions.

The other major area of rendering functionality is Mental Ray's Global Illumination.  For the first time in commercially-available software, a type of radiosity solution is available that is fast enough to work in full animation, getting recalculated at every frame as objects and interactive lighting moves around, and dramatically increasing the quality and realism of 3D scenes.  In this area, as with the shader trees, the degree of programmability, and the interactive raytracing, Sumatra seems to be far ahead of Maya, even though it still lacks many of the cool built-in effects that Maya can add to scenes.  The output possible from this new system is nothing short of amazing, and it is clearly raising the bar for the level of quality people can expect from production renderers.

Buzz Factor
Most customers want more from their software company than just a good program.  A software plateform is a sort of community, and the size of the community, the people and companies that are a part of it, can be just as important as the software itself.  In the two years since Maya 1 started shipping, Softimage has not been attracting many new customers, and has lost much of its reputation as being the hot software package.  Students are more interested in learning Maya, more companies are getting Maya for new projects, developers are less likely to make plug-ins supporting Softimage, employers are finding a growing pool of talent available in Maya and fewer people trained in Softimage, and in various other ways, the public perception of a product can lead to an upward or downward feedback loop, that can send a product without the right "buzz factor" into a nose-dive.  Softimage has some good code in Sumatra, and some good ideas, but to still be in beta as Maya ships version 2.5 will not be an easy point to catch-up from.  Softimage has a good product, but the real question that remains to be answered is whether it is good enough to actually help catch-up to Maya and rebuilt the buzz and momentum that Softimage so desperately needs.

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This article and included photographs are Copyright © 1999 by Jeremy Birn.  Please do not duplicate without written permission.