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Visualising a better future

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Glengate's new company, Cubicspace, has developed RTRE, a tool quite unlike anything else on the market

How many times have you looked at a computer image and considered it to be just too crisp or too sharp? It is a common problem with using computers. We put too much information into a model purely because we can, and the result is visual overload. As with many things in life, it is not knowing what to include that underlines the level of skill of the user, but knowing what can be left out without compromising the whole.

Hayes Davidson mastered this many years ago while its competitors thought they had to model every tiny detail. The difference between the best and the also-rans had little to do with the technology they used, and everything to do with how they used it.

Alan Davidson is primarily an artist, a fine sketcher with an eye for the 'feel' of a visual. He approached computer modelling and visualisation with the same attitude to shape, light and texture that he captured in his sketches.

This strikingly simple approach did not only look better, it also proved more effective when presenting concept design ideas to clients who could absorb the design intent without being caught up in the detail, which had yet to be developed. But despite the tradeoff in quality from an artist's sketch to a computer image, designers turned to computer visualisations for other reasons, most notably flexibility.

When an artist sketches a view it is completely inflexible and cannot be amended easily without redrawing the whole thing. This doubles the cost, since it is not possible with a fixed image to make minor amendments to the eye position or the focal point. Conversely, the computer enables the designer to make even subtle changes to the view with complete flexibility over every aspect.

One company that grew tired of the endless iterations of artists' sketches was Glengate Properties, a privately owned property development company spending too much money on sketches that often fell short of expectations.

Convinced that there must be a better way to present its schemes, Glengate set up a two-year research programme to identify better ways of developing and visualising designs.

The first stop was computer modelling and visualisation. Attending trade shows across Europe and the US, Paul Markham, co-founder of Cubicspace, trailed around each of the main players' stands, learning about the available technologies.

Armed with his new-found knowledge, Markham sat down to write a brief for the ideal solution.

Glengate wanted a solution that would deliver the kind of changeflexibility it lacked when working with sketch artists, and the ability to produce a range of presentation techniques ranging from simple pencil sketches to full-blown photo-realistic views. But for Glengate that was not enough. It also wanted to have immediate access to the different media formats, to be able to change from a pencil-line drawing to the 'real' image at the press of a button.

Standard computer rendering certainly had the quality and flexibility Glengate was looking for but lacked the speed of execution deemed essential. Virtual reality (VR) tools were fine on speed but the quality of the visualisation was not good enough. However, companies such as Glengate thrive by creating their own successes.

Cherry-picking from the best software tools, programs and designers, Glengate created a company called Cubicspace and, in a 'Frankensteinlike' way, set about realising its aim of developing a visualisation tool like nothing else on the market.

Cubicspace decided it would only invest time where absolutely necessary, selecting Discreet technology in the form of 3DS MAX 4 and VIZ 4 as the platform for development.

'Discreet technology offers us the very best in class for further development, ' explains Markham. 'It was an obvious choice.' The second foundation chosen for development was Windows on Intel-compatible PCs.

Two years later, Cubicspace has a product. It is called RTRE, but there is no consensus on the expansion of the name; Real Time Rendering Engine is one variation, Real Time Real Estate another, but I really did not care when I saw RTRE in action.

Seamlessly integrated into 3DS MAX, the interface will be familiar to thousands of users already benefiting from the Max.

Indeed, one could be forgiven for wondering where the differences are.

RTRE has its own menu bar and individual viewport controls within MAX, which enable the image to be rendered to MAX quality in a fraction of the time. To be more precise, in the time it takes VIZ to render one image, RTRE will have completed 1,140! Yes, really, RTRE is up to 1,140 times faster than VIZ when rendering the same model. And the benefits are not only speed-related; the quality of the image is exceptionally high too.

If photo-realistic rendering is not for you, there are a series of other options. The same model can be rendered as a pencil sketch, a cartoon, a hidden line drawing, coloured pencils, watercolour etc, and with the speed of processing available, it is easy to switch between the different formats in the same time it takes to change channels on your TV. Lights can be switched on and off individually in the scene without the need to regenerate the image, and they can even be repositioned with the light and shadows moving in front of your eyes. This is thanks to photon radiosity, which delivers the best quality in a fraction of the time normally associated with rendering.

With this phenomenal speed, RTRE would be wasted if used solely for the creation of flat images. Processing a rendered view in 1/30th of a second, RTRE enables real-time walkthroughs of building interiors.

And if even that does not impress you, then drop 100 animated people with behavioural attributes into the scene and watch them walk around, avoiding all obstacles and each other in the process.

The speed is further enhanced by the intelligent occlusion system, which knows which bits of the model you can and cannot see from your viewpoint, and only renders the bits that you can see. In much the same way, 3D sounds can be added to the model so that as you approach the source, the volume increases.

It is rare for me to review something and find no faults, and unfortunately RTRE is no exception.

While the recipe for RTRE has been faithfully executed and the results are astonishing, I cannot help thinking that the focus is also its downfall.

Cubicspace has created a tool that could be applied in many more ways than simply rendering.With so much emphasis now being given to collaboration and reuse of design data, RTRE has the power to provide an interactive asset-management environment for staff training, maintenance and scenario planning for fire egress, etc.

Furthermore, when your AutoCAD model is imported into RTRE, all links back to the design data are lost, so if the design changes in AutoCAD, the RTRE model will not be amended automatically. As VIZ already has similar linking functionality with Autodesk LT, I cannot believe that RTRE could not add this ingredient to its mix. With product lifecycle management (PLM) now a hot topic, Cubicspace will miss an opportunity to form alliances with some of the big PLM players if it does not embrace the idea that pretty pictures are no longer enough in big business.

Still, RTRE deserves plenty of plaudits. Costing about £5,000 on top of VIZ or MAX, it is not cheap, but sitting waiting for an image to drop on the screen is hardly a worthwhile investment. If I ran a practice, I would buy RTRE without hesitation, and if I ran Cubicspace, I would start work immediately on making RTRE PLM friendly!

Joe Croser can be contacted by e-mail at joe@croser. net

PROS: Fantastically fast real-time animation

CONS: It could be tailored to do so much more

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