Thursday, 27 September 2007

3D virtual worlds for the blind

A news item which I found very interesting recently concerns the extension of online virtual worlds to blind people thanks to research by students at IBM in Ireland. Estimates predict that 80% of active internet users will be using a virtual world in four years' time (a figure that based on the popularity of Second Life can't easily be disputed). The company is keen to ensure that blind people are not excluded from an environment that sighted people will take for granted and has thus designed an audio equivalent of the virtual world using 3D sound to create a sense of space.

The initial project - called Accessibility In Virtual Worlds - is what the company describes as "a proof of concept" at this stage but will be passed on to IBM's Human Ability and Accessibility Centre in Texas for further development. The Irish team decided to use the Active Worlds online environment rather than the more popular Second Life for flexibility reasons. Active Worlds is a collection of user-made virtual worlds that people can visit via a web browser plug-in.

To offer a better insight on how this all works; "When the user comes into the world, the items are described as well as their positions," explained Colm O'Brien, one of the team of four researchers who worked on the project. "There is also sound attached - for example, if there's a tree nearby you will hear a rustling of leaves," said Mr O'Brien. The work also developed tools which uses text to speech software that reads out any chat from fellow avatars in the virtual world that appears in a text box. Characters in the virtual world can have a "sonar" attached to them so that the user gets audible cues to alert them to when they are approaching, from which direction and how near they are.

A number of blind mentors have given advice and feedback to the team - one in IBM's Dublin lab and two based at IBM's research centre in Texas. The team also liaised with the National Council for the Blind of Ireland on their work. As well as proving that the idea is feasible, the team has made a number of recommendations about accessibility standards for virtual worlds which should help the developers of the future.

All in all this is an extremely interesting and innovative piece of research work in the general area of virtual urban modelling, for more information check the links below, the first one for the original BBC story and the second for the IBM site in question...

Thursday, 20 September 2007

In-car GPS navigation finally moving towards 3D?

A very important development in the world of urban modelling is the fact that car GPS systems finally seem to be moving towards 3D... European Sat Nav users will soon be able to navigate through cities with 3D models of buildings and landmarks displayed life-like onscreen.

Digital map provider Tele Atlas ( is set to release detailed 3D maps of nearly 50 cities for use in navigation devices and location-based applications. The first detailed 3D city maps will include major capital cities such as London, Berlin and Rome. Additional European, US and Asian city maps will follow over the next year. It should be noted here that Tele Atlas provides mapping information for many major Sat Nav and location-based product and service developers, including market leader (and very very popular in the UK!) TomTom. You can see a brief demo of the prototype of this all at the YouTube link below.

As well as displaying prominent landmarks in 3D, Tele Atlas maps will feature textured cityscapes rather than flat representations. Additionally, major landmarks, such as the Tower of London and Berlin's Brandenburg Gate will be modelled in detail on the 3D maps... The 3D maps will initially cover around 40 square kilometres per city. Even more importantly Tele Atlas representatives mention that as the move towards pedestrian navigation and location services gathers pace, 3D imaging of street level points of interest such as train stations, bus stops and so on will become more important... Tele Atlas also claims its research shows that 81 per cent of consumers prefer 3D maps over 2D versions, with stronger interest in 3D city maps.

I will await the developments of this with great interest, car navigation is certainly a rapidly expanding area today and seeing it starting to embrace the 3D urban modelling concept is certainly not only very encouraging, but also prone to open up immense possibilities for all aspects of work attached to it...

Urban Environment Creation In Maya instructional DVD

For all the Maya users out there interested in a comprehensive urban environment tutorial, there's nothing I could recommend more than Digital Tutor's Urban Environment Creation in Maya instructional DVD.

The tutorial DVD covers an entire, thorough and from scratch production workflow to creating urban environments and time-saving modeling, texturing and UV mapping techniques that can be used for film, games and architectural visualizations of building structures. It contains over 6 hours of project-based training and is great for intermediate artists or even people still finding their feet with Maya and 3D urban modelling. Some of the areas it covers include:

- Hard Surface Modeling Techniques
- Modeling with Texture
- Modeling to a Camera
- Strategically Adding Detail
- Simulating Aging and Decay
- UV Layout Techniques
- Using UV Snapshots
- Integrating Maya and Photoshop
- Generating Displacement Maps
- Texture Painting with Photoshop
- Layering Textures
- Tiling Textures
- Generating Procedural Maps
- Adding Architectural Elements
- Creating Interior Illusions with Textures
- Connecting Maya Texture Nodes
- Complex Scene Management
- Scene Optimization for Rendering

For more information about the DVD, purchasing it, sample pics and even a sample video lesson visit

GPS keyring anyone?

Your phone, PDA (or even laptop, see post below) may have GPS capabilities, but who wants to carry around a receiver everywhere you go? However, what if the receiver was tiny ... and also doubled as your key ring? According to that's exactly what Proporta is proposing with its latest "world's smallest" (a claim I have to say I am not entirely convinced by) GPS receiver, the Freedom.

The ultra-compact device does in fact function as a key fob, in addition to being a SiRF Star III-equipped receiver which can interface with whatever friendly device you happen to have nearby. The Freedom will last you nine hours on a single charge, connects with up to 20 satellites, and plays nice with Bluetooth devices, making your navigational world slightly more enjoyable. The little guy is available right now for €99.95, or $129.99. Admittedly it looks like a very cool little gadget.

For more information about the Freedom GPS check

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

3D urban modelling used in vodka commercial

I am not usually one to dissect advertisements very much (although there are several which are quite clearly small work of arts when it comes to visual effects and post production), however a very recent one selling (of all things!) Smirnoff vodka found me very interested in it... The reason? Well, it's not very often you see some very elaborate stylized, clay-rendered urban 3D modelling examples of landscapes of major capital cities in a commercial!

As you can see on the pic above and also the YouTube link, the ad in question chooses to portray the vodka as a flowing red liquid marching its way through the Russian capital, then onto Paris and then onto glipses of other capitals. The modelling throughout is superb and is very nicely complimented by some great camera work that really captures the detail of the urban meshes presented.

All in all, it is a very interesting piece of work that shows just how much of age 3D urban modelling has come the last few years in order to be picked as a concept to represent major brands in high-profile marketing strategies.

GPS equipped Asus laptop

Something which caught my eye recently and which seems to be setting a new trend; a laptop with GPS integrated capabilities. Asus looks to be keeping busy on the GPS front these days, with it now following up its just-introduced navigators with what it claims to be the "world's first mainstream notebook PC with integrated GPS capability" (certainly the first one I've read about).

That particular distinction goes to the company's new U3S laptop, which relies on NXP Software's swGPS system for navigation duties. Amongst other things, NXP's system does all the necessary GPS signal processing entirely in software, which not only allows it to be much smaller but also opens up the possibility of fairly significant software upgrades (including support for Galileo). From the looks of it, the laptop itself is also no slouch, with the usual Centrino Duo-related goods and some unspecified discreet graphics under the hood. Just don't expect "mainstream" to mean "cheap," with the laptop set to run €2,300 (or $3,200) when it's released later this month...

Still, something that will hopefully be a trendsetter, there's enough PDAs out there with built-in GPS, having computationally more powerful devices also come with one can only open up possibilities...

Animex 2008

For today's post a shameless plug to what is, arguably the best computer animation festival in the UK at the moment, Animex, The International Festival For Animation & Computer Games, running for a number of years in a row at Teesside University, Middlesbrough, UK where I did my MA in Computer Animation (back in the day ...). The festival this year will be running between the 4th and the 8th of February.

The festival has its roots firmly planted in the creative side of animation and computer games and acts to provide animators, directors, students, artists, designers, writers and educators with a forum in which they can share their knowledge and skills and promote the art of animation and games. Festival delegates are able to attend talks (often from very prestigious people in the area!), presentations, workshops, screenings and parties.

A short list of this year's activities includes an awards ceremony, an open-plan exhibition area, a dedicated to computer games special event, an animation lounge and a variety of technical workshops and tutorials. While the list of invited speakers for this year's festival is not yet confirmed (seeing that the festival is a few months away), last year's event included, most notably, Ed Hooks (a well known pioneer in acting training specifically designed for animators) and Eamonn Butler (long-time Disney employee) amongst others...

Whether you're an industry heavyweight, a freelancing artist, a new company, a student, a researcher or even if you're just interested in animation or computer games, Animex is the place to be in 2008. Since 2000 Animex has been pioneering events that make the festival a unique experience for all of its visitors and is not only worthy of support but also capable of capturing the imagination for a number of related research matters...

For more info on Animex 2008 (such as obtaining tickets) and Teesside University check the following links, and

See you there!

New version of Softimage XSI

One of my favourite 3D modelling packages (and the one I mostly used for my Masters work) has been getting an update/rerelease... Softimage has announced the latest versions of its 3D animation software packages: SoftimageXSI 6.5 and SoftimageFace Robot 1.8.

Both will ship in the autumn, according to the company. The company also announced plans to "repackage its Essentials and Advanced versions of SoftimageXSI 6.5 software to meet the specific needs of artists and studios, respectively", essentially changing which features are in which version, and also the pricing, to appeal better to certain users. Both SoftimageXSI 6.5 Essentials and Advanced software will include more than thirty enhancements that were developed for creative companies such as Lionhead Studios, Valve, EA, Animal Logic, Nerdcorps, Pandemic and NCSoft (according to Softimage again).

New tools across both versions include HDR (high dynamic range) rendermap support, additional SDK APIs allowing programmers to extend the software's capabilities, UV editing enhancements, and enhanced audio support. SoftimageXSI 6.5 Essentials is now aimed at artists creating 3D characters and content for games, film and television. The Essentials version now includes Hair & Fur, and Syflex Cloth capabilities. The price for Essentials will increase to $2,995 (around £1,470); maintenance remains unchanged at $799 (£392), and upgrades remain unchanged at $999 (£490). XSI 6.5 Essentials will only be available to new customers and customers on active maintenance. SoftimageXSI 6.5 XSI Advanced on the other hand is aimed at technical directors and studio IT managers. It includes everything in the SoftimageXSI 6.5 XSI Essentials package, plus Behavior, a crowd and behavioral simulation system, as well as five additional XSI Batch rendering licenses. The price for Advanced will decrease to $4,995 (£2,450) and maintenance will decrease to $1333 (£653).

For more information, check the official Softimage site at