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It's GDC time again and in response to the conference Autodesk, like many other companies, is gearing up its media machine for a flurry of new announcements including new versions of its various Digital Entertainment Creation (DEC) packages. In order to grease the skids, Autodesk proactively invited an entourage of press power to their Montreal offices for an event coined as the Backstage Pass Media Event.
The event featured familiar faces using the standard keywords about best of class tools and improved workflows. Included in this year's presentations were the typical introduction of the new 2012 versions of their popular packages including 3ds Max, Maya, Softimage, Mudbox, MotionBuilder and the combined suites. The new versions boast time-saving enhancements and dazzling new features that promise to make artists more efficient than ever.
[heading]New Product Features[/heading]
One of the coolest new integration features for the suites is the single-step interoperability between the suite packages. This enables a model in Maya to be transported over to Mudbox for some detail work using a single click, as shown in Figure 1. Another click in Mudbox moves the model with its changes back to Maya. You can also single click between 3ds Max or Maya to Mudbox, MotionBuilder and the ICE interface of Softimage.
Figure 1: Single step interoperability allows a complex dataset to be instantly loaded into another Autodesk product with a single command.
The Autodesk development teams have also worked to build common functionality between their different products. The new F-Curve Editor, found in 3ds Max, Maya, MotionBuilder and Softimage is a great example of this. This editor window has the best aspects of all the different products and has been updated in all these packages to be similar, so that the interface is familiar and easy to use regardless of the package.
The new features and improvements in the individual packages are also very interesting. 3ds Max 2012 has a new Nitrous display mode for amazing model previews directly in the viewport using the video card's GPUs. There have also been improvements in the UV Unwrap workflow, the painting tools, and non-photorealistic rendering. Rigid body dynamics in both 3ds Max 2012 and Maya 2012 have been updated to use NVIDIA's PhysX engine (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Physics in both 3ds Max 2012 and Maya 2012 now use NVIDIA's PhysX engine.
Maya 2012 also has viewport enhancements that make effects such as motion blur, depth-of-field and ambient occlusion visible without having to render. There is also a new Motion Trails feature that lets you edit animation paths in the viewport without having to open the graph editor. Maya 2012 also includes a new Digital Molecular Matter plug-in for creating realistic shattering of objects. The Maya fluids module has also been updated to simulate complex motions like boiling, pouring and splashing.
Softimage 2012 includes new nodes in the ICE interface that lets you work with Syflex cloth simulations. Also new is the inclusion of the Lagoa Multiphysics framework that lets you simulate the motion of liquids, cloth, foam, plastic and rubber.
MotionBuilder 2012 uses a new unified HumanIK interface that works better across all the products using a more consistent workflow. It also has support for stereoscopic camera rigs that are easily transported to Maya, Flame or Smoke.
Mudbox 2012 has a new UV-less painting mode that lets you paint directly on objects without having to establish UVs first. Its posing tools have also been updated to allow pose pre-sets to be created and any changes are automatically propagated to the saved poses. Mudbox 2012 also allows you to work with large textures for even more detail.
The event also included a discussion of the various middleware offerings available from Autodesk including Beast, for enabling global illumination within game engines; Kynapse, for AI solutions; HumanIK, for realistic character animation; and Scaleform, the new kid on the block, for user interface design. Autodesk announced its intent to acquire Scaleform and to integrate it into their middleware offering.
[heading]Technology Preview of Project Skyline[/heading]
These announcements and the marketing presentations were typical to what we've seen in year's past, but what made this event unique was the technology preview that was described as "ground-breaking." It is statements like this that make a journalist sit up and listen. The project has been coined Project Skyline and I believe it is something to write home about.
The games industry has recently been impacted by the sluggish economy and studios are finding that they need to develop games with greater complexity on smaller budgets with less time. The answer to this dilemma is to be more efficient and that is the specific issue that Project Skyline is addressing.
Project Skyline was presented by Eric Plante, Product Manager for the Games team, a face new to Autodesk, who was specifically brought in because of his extensive game experience having worked at EA for many years. Eric knows firsthand the pain of trying to build games with inefficient pipelines.
Eric began the presentation by describing the current efficient workflow for adding 3d assets to a game production. This workflow takes an artists work and throws it over a wall to the programming team. The programmers then integrate the game asset into their code and test out the results in the game engine. Many bugs and problems with the art assets are only discovered after the asset has been placed and manipulated in the game engine during a test cycle. By this time, the artist is working on another piece of the game and if there are problems, he has to interrupt his current work and take time to fix the problem asset. Any fixes can only then be verified once the asset has been re-integrated into the code again.
Because this is such an inefficient workflow, many companies have invested a huge amount of time in modifying the pipeline by creating art asset libraries that the code automatically pulls into the engine during integration runs. These systems are much better, but they still don't provide the immediate feedback that the artist needs while building the asset and they require many hours of programming time to implement and customize.
Project Skyline addresses these inefficiencies directly using a system that gives immediate real-time feedback to the artists from within their tool. This allows the artist to try out the asset they are currently building within the game engine while building it. Problems with the assets and its animations can be immediately identified and corrected without having to wait for an integration build.
Eric showed a working version of Project Skyline in action. The demonstration extended the Maya tool with live links into a working game engine that allowed the artist to move and control the character in a game environment and see the animations in real-time. Each keystroke for controlling the character was detected and processed to play a different animation, as shown in Figure 3. The artist could then use Maya to tweak the various animations as needed and see the results right away.
Figure 3: As the character is moved in the game engine, each animation is displayed within a timeline interface in Maya.
Such a system allows the artist to check and double check their assets before sending them down the pipeline. It also saves the programmers time from having to check all the assets in regular integration builds. The results would be a much more efficient pipeline and less headaches all around.
Included within the Project Skyline tools is a visual node-based programming interface that lets technical artists build all the links between the character and its control keys without any coding, as shown in Figure 4. This also frees up programmers to focus on their own work.
Figure 4: Technical artists can use a Maya tool to define the interactions of the character in the game engine.
Project Skyline also frees programmers from writing low level animation code and data translators because it includes an animation engine that is easily integrated with the game engine. The tools allow artists to validate their character is a working game environment and it eases the burden on programmers thus making the entire pipeline more efficient.
It was great to see the new product features and to see Autodesk's ongoing commitment to making their products meet their customer's needs. Rob Hoffman, Senior Product Marketing Manager for the 3D team, mentioned that 100 percent of the product updates are customer driven. The success of these products is directly tied to a company that cares about its customers.
Project Skyline is another great example of how the teams at Autodesk are looking for ways to make their products indispensable. Seeing how Maya can be used to address one of the most common pipeline bottlenecks is truly inspiring.
Kelly L. Murdock works as a freelance consultant and author. He has written extensively on 3D graphics including Maya 7 and 8 Revealed and several other titles.