Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Microsoft unveils Photosynth

An interesting and very recent piece of news is the unveiling of Photosynth by Microsoft, a hybrid software/service that allows users to create 3-D environments (including urban ones) by stitching multiple photographs together. In announcing the new technology, Microsoft said it has created "an entirely new visual medium". In a video posted on Microsoft's site, Gary Flake, a technical fellow at Microsoft, said, "Photosynth, more than any other technology that I can think of, points us in the direction of what's to come. Photosynth will mark the beginning of an important transition in photography and the Internet".

To create "synths," as Microsoft calls Photosynth's creations, users take between 20 and 300 overlapping photos. The Photosynth software analyzes the collection for similarities and uses that data to estimate where a photo was taken and "recreates the environment ... as a canvas on which to display the photos," according to a release.

But rather than just enabling users to create these environments on their PCs Microsoft has fashioned Photosynth as an online application (following the YouTube philosophy). Users create synths and upload source images via the Photosynth.com Web site. The site generates code to embed the results on websites (though users will have to install an ActiveX control to see synths).

While Photosynth is being rolled out as a consumer toy, Microsoft sees substantial applications in the various business areas. Shopping experiences that are "extremely visual" are one application accordining to company representatives. Microsoft's press site also featured videos showing Realtors and even NASCAR drivers using the technology...

The official site for this service is http://www.photosynth.com/

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Sony Computer Entertainment Europe teams with National Geographic for gaming title

In a unique multidisciplinary collaboration, Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios has announced a partnership with National Geographic for its forthcoming PS3 title AFRIKA. The game sees players dropped into a large-scale 'photorealistic' recreation of the plains of Africa, where they can observe and watch the natural interactions of the various animals native to the region.

In 2006, National Geographic Ventures had an idea of developing a product that utilised both National Geographic's extensive research data and the graphical power of the PS3 to create a simulation where players could experience the diversity of nature and the mystery and charm of animal ecologies.

It came across the AFRIKA project in development at Sony, which shared similar goals, and the two companies decided to cooperate on the title. National Geographic served as a supervisor to the project, overseeing the modelling, animation and behaviour of the animals featured. It has also used its research data and library of photographic and video resources - including material specially created for the game - to add an educational 'Animal Library' feature to the game.

It is not the first time that National Geographic has been involved with games - it's previously worked with other developers to make PS2 and PC games, however definitely never to this extent. AFRIKA will launch in Japan on August 28th, but a Western release has not been announced... I will be very interested personally to see what has been achieved with this title when it is released in Europe.

Monday, 18 August 2008

3D VFX used for Olympics opening ceremony

Just to demonstrate the power of 3D visual effects today, Olympics Beijing organizers confirmed that some of the fireworks display featured prerecorded VFX footage. Fireworks that burst into the shape of 29 gigantic footprints were shown trudging above the Beijing skyline to the National Stadium near the start of the ceremony. Though the footprint-shaped fireworks were real, some of the footage shown to television viewers around the world and on giant screens inside the "Bird's Nest" stadium featured a computer-generated three-dimensional image.

"It was confirmed that previously recorded footage was provided to the broadcasters for convenience and theatrical effects," Beijing organizing committee spokesman Wang Wei said. "Because of the poor visibility of the night, some previously recorded footage may have been used." The computerized images were produced by Crystal Digital Technology Co. of Beijing. "We did our best to create a rendering that would look like the shot was taken live," company spokesman Lei Ming told the Beijing Times. "Most people could not tell the difference."

Monday, 11 August 2008

IEEE Computer Graphics And Applications journal, Mobile Graphics special issue

The latest issue of IEEE's Computer Graphics And Applications journal focuses on the topic of mobile graphics and is an absolute must-read for anyone researchig in the area. Mobile phones form a ubiquitous graphics platform; over half of the world population uses them. This special issue presents solutions that overcome some of the inherent limitations of these compact computing devices and make use of the fact that they are available at all times, not just at your desk.

Articles include; Virtual Control Desks for Nuclear Power Plant Simulation: Improving Operator Training, Mobile 3D City Maps, Positioning and Orientation in Indoor Environments Using Camera Phones, Toward Next-Gen Mobile AR Games, Extensible GUIs for Remote Application Control on Mobile Devices and The State of the Art in Mobile Graphics Research amongst others.

For those of you with an IEEE Xplore membership, you can check this particular special issue out here.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Collada file format version 1.5 released

To anyone interested in alternatives to the long-antiquated VRML file format (used for Pocket PC or not), the Khronos Group has released the specification for the COLLADA 1.5 file format, which is freely available from its website. The new version adds support for B-reps (boundary representations) and kinematics, both targeted towards the CAD, automation and game industries. It also provides a new OpenGL ES 2.0 effects profile, expanded support for external shader effects systems, and a new file format - .zae, or Zipped Asset Exchange.

The Group has also released the 2nd Edition of its COLLADA 1.4.1 spec, which includes corrections, clarifications and enhanced explanations for transparency, animation, lighting, splines and skinning. “COLLADA 1.5 is a very significant release as it contains new functionality that enables completely new industries to use COLLADA – as well as expanding the use of this widely used standard in its traditional content-creation markets,” said Neil Trevett, president of Khronos.

“The industry momentum of COLLADA has now reached a critical tipping point – it has become a genuine lingua franca for 3D designers everywhere.” Marc Stevens, general manager of Softimage, and vice president of AVID Technology, added: “We see COLLADA as a key strategic component of our future. COLLADA is the only true open format that facilitates 3D data interchange. The latest release adds many features, including a referenced texture archive and support for real-time shaders—exemplifying how COLLADA is leading the way in open workflows.

Softimage recently implemented a rich content pipeline to the Crytek, CryENGINE 2, based completely on a COLLADA interchange; we’re fully committed to supporting the advancement of the COLLADA standard, which delivers the most productive work-flows for our SOFTIMAGEXSI customers.”

Friday, 8 August 2008

Various pre-SIGGRAPH product announcements

It used to be the case that software developers announced new products on the opening day of SIGGRAPH. This year however, several developers have jumped the gun, announcing product updates in the week preceding the show. The timing is presumably an attempt to ensure that the releases don‘t get lost in the blizzard of news announcements that ensues as harrassed journalists scurry to the press room on the first Monday.

Softimage and Caligari were first out of the blocks, unveiling XSI 7 and trueSpace 7.6 a full month before the show (now a free download, thanks to Microsoft‘s backing). Earlier this week, they were followed by The Pixel Farm, promoting true stereoscopic 3D tracking and updated camera solver in PFTrack 5.0; and e-on Software announcing that Vue 7 will be previewed at the show (same tools as Vue 6, but refined and updated).

This was followed by both Eyeon and Autodesk, announcing Fusion 6 and Mudbox 2009 and the 3ds Max 2009 Creativity Extension, respectively. Eyeon is also riding on the wave of interest in stereoscopic 3D workflows, adding a stereo compositing toolset and a complete new 3D system. The move follows The Foundry's lead in building stereo tools into Nuke 5.0, released earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Autodesk has unveiled Mudbox 2009, adding a new texture-painting toolset to the digital sculpting tool. Mudbox 2009 will also offer significant performance boosts and, unsurprisingly, improved normal and bump map interchange Autodesk‘s main 3D packages, Maya and 3ds Max.

The Creativity Extension to 3ds Max adds new particle operators (essentially the old Particle Tools Box 1 plug-in, formerly sold for $195, with a few bugfixes and better integration into the core software, we‘re told), a new geometry optimisation tool and support for multi-track audio. The release should go some way towards pacifying games and visual effects artists who felt that the new features 3ds Max 2009 were weighted too heavily towards visualisation professionals – those of them who are on subscription contracts, and can actually obtain it, at least.

Greeble plug-in CG community gallery

"A greeble or nurnie is a small piece of detailing added to break up the surface of an object to add visual interest to a surface or object, particularly in movie special effects."

I've featured a self-made tutorial on the excellent Greeble 3D Studio Max plug-in before (on how to quickly generate a randon 3D urban environment, found here) but I was very pleased to find out today about http://www.greeblelicious.com/, a CG community gallery website devoted to Greeble artistry.

You may be asking yourself what the hell that is exactly and the best way to explain it is for you to see some of the samples for yourself... Greeble artwork can be absolutely stunning or it can be downright terrible but some of the examples on said website are indeed very inspiring (with some great 3D virtual cities in there too) and well worth checking out.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Bournemouth University students winners of the Google ‘International Model Your Campus Competition’

Phil Hazleton (BA Business Studies) and Alex Geeves (BSc Digital Media Development) wowed judges from the world of IT, architecture and design with their model of Bournemouth University's Talbot Campus at this year’s Google ‘International Model Your Campus Competition’.

They used Google SketchUp to create BU's campus buildings, which they geo-referenced in Google Earth and uploaded using the Google 3D Warehouse application. Commenting on the entry, the judges said: "They captured the right level of detail to efficiently reflect the character and complexity of the campuses they represented. The photo-texturing was exceptional – people, cars and vegetation were removed so that the building textures were plainly visible.”

Phil is over the moon with his success. He said: “To be one of the winners feels great. It’s great for BU too, as it will appear in Google Earth automatically whenever anyone is looking around the area.” BU is amongst seven winners worldwide, which include Peking University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Stockholm University and Cardiff University.

You can check out or even download the model at http://sketchup.google.com/3dwarehouse/cldetails?mid=4fb3a8154ea11489d00c70bf72aa4ee1

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

CityEngine generates Rome in one day at SIGGRAPH and becomes available as a download

I have featured posts on this particular application before but at this year’s SIGGRAPH, a spectacular 3D recreation of ancient Rome (A.D. 320) will be revealed where revolutionary graphics technology has been applied to reconstruct the extremely detailed virtual urban environment.

Procedural Inc., an innovative software company located in Zurich, Switzerland, is home to arguably the world’s foremost procedural modeling technology. With the CityEngine, Procedural Inc.’s graphics experts have created a radically different 3D application that allows the modeling of cities up to 10 times faster than previous solutions, making automatic digital city creation possible for professional users. This makes it a compelling tool for the production of video games, feature films and television series, architectural visualizations and applications for the emerging 3D internet, where consumers expect richer, higher quality digital content for their dollar.

“Cities are huge, richly detailed artifacts that are often required in digital productions, and modeling them with existing tools can take several man years,” says Pascal Müller, CEO of Procedural Inc. “The CityEngine addresses these previously unsolved modeling problems by offering several procedural modeling tools for generating large-scale urban layouts, as well as a unique shape grammar for the efficient creation of detailed building models. With these tools, users not only experience a faster modeling experience, but one which allows them to create cityscapes that have never been seen before.”

Bernard Frischer, director of Rome Reborn says that “Our project involves the complete virtual reconstruction of the city at its zenith under Emperor Constantine, when it had about one million residents. To build by hand the corresponding 7,000 apartment buildings, family houses, public buildings and temples would have taken us forever; but CityEngine's power and flexibility made the process amazingly quick without sacrificing detail or quality. This allowed us to concentrate on modeling the unique monuments. The CityEngine also helps to quickly change the model as new scholarship or discoveries warrant.”

“After the Rome building designs had been specified in the CityEngine, generating and exporting the entire city model took exactly 1 hour and 55 minutes,” continues Müller. “Thus, Rome actually WAS built in one day… or, at least its digital counterpart was.” The release of CityEngine also marks the official debut of Procedural Inc. Founder and CEO Pascal Müller was formerly a researcher at ETH Zurich, where he pioneered the field of procedural urban modeling (with his series of SIGGRAPH publications about procedural urban modeling), which led to the creation of CityEngine.

In just six months, the Procedural engineering team under CTO Simon Schubiger transformed the research into a powerful industry application. Priced at $6,950 per license, there is also a free 30-day trial version, including example scenes, available for download at http://www.procedural.com/. Looking very forward to trying this one out, watch this space for a future post on that topic!

Monday, 4 August 2008

trueSpace available for free, tied to Virtual Earth content

An interesting development in urban modelling; Microsoft's Virtual Earth has been arguably lagging behind in terms of free tools for its community and content so its interesting that recently Microsoft announced, via Chris Pendleton's blog, that trueSpace, the previously $595 3D authoring package, is now free with the explicit aim of adding content into Virtual Earth.

Part of Chris's post mentions:

"As you'll recall, several months ago we acquired Caligari because of their advanced 3D toolset - trueSpace (among other assets). I've always felt sketchy about other 3D freeware, so starting today trueSpace 7.6 is now available for download.....FOR FREE! And, there is a direct connection into Live Search Maps so you can create SUPER high resolution 3D models using trueSpace, then right from the environment upload the model into Live Search Maps as a collection item. Once you've created your collection, you can import your collection into your Virtual Earth application and BAM you have your own custom 3D models in your Virtual Earth application. We'll host the models right in our 3D collections cloud..."

A Microsoft initiative to create a contender for Google SketchUp? Time can only tell...

Nokia's views and strategic plan on mobile gaming

As a great insight into the future of mobile gaming as seen by one of the current leading firms in the field at the moment, during his opening mobile keynote at the recent Develop conference at Brighton, UK, Nokia’s Aki Jarvilehto has predicted that the mobile market will be worth €4.2 by 2011 – with part of that growth driven by new games developed with 'disruptive technology' such as GPS and high-quality production values in mind.

He explained that the market had started to move beyond a world where the user-experience for discovering games, and the frustrating way developers have to produce SKUs for thousands of handsets, was “on par with getting punched in the face” and instead developers and publishers are now able to invest in the more innovative technologies available in new handsets. “Publishers are moving into [high quality mobile content investment],” he said, adding that perceptions in the industry were changing towards valuing better production values in games. At the same time, the opportunities for developers to self-publish their games on mobile devices were on the rise. “For you as a developer this means now is the right time to ask ‘how do I innovate?’”.

Before delving into the technologies that developers can innovate with, however, he added that those making mobile games should be aware that innovation works best when it satisfies consumer needs. “Innovation is a dirty word that gets overused often. I dislike innovation for innovation’s sake. It’s too easy to chase that next new feature. The guiding beacon for innovation should always be the consumer. When you are looking to take these technologies into use you stay focused on the consumer,” he said.

Jarvilehto then presented Nokia’s view on the market for mobile games, profiling six key demographics (quotes are examples of how each demographic would describe its playing habits. The segments are: Core Gamer (‘playing is part of my identity and I want to play and compete with others’), Web 2.0 (‘I want games which let me interact and communicate with my friends and other people’), personal development (‘I would play games that make me a better person’), casual gamer (‘I want to be entertained while I have a break or nothing else to do’), feminine games (‘I want to be entertained on my own terms) local content (‘I want to play games which resonate with my cultural background and are familiar to me’).

Jarvilehto added that there are “disruptive technologies which we have available” to satisfy these consumers. He also pointed to four Nokia products – cross-platform core gamer game Reset Generation, episodic camera game Dirk Dagger, user-generated content title Yamake and virtual pet Creebies – as examples that these innovations were possible. These games took advantage of some of the “hot technologies” which were or will soon be available in a variety of handsets – and not just Nokia ones.

CPU performance and memory on devices is improving such that it will soon be “taken for granted”, he said, adding that “game changing” 3D acceleration is on the rise and also makes TV-out more relevant in devices. Javilehto added that, in developing countries, “consumers will have their first high-end games experience via a portable device plugged into a TV”. Touchscreen is also something “[Nokia is] going to support at all prices points”, he said, adding that the same is true of accelerometers, possibly even magnetometers, and cross-platform functions “which will be shipping in most of our devices”.

But it was GPS he said offered the most immediate potential for mainstream innovation. “Nokia is taking GPS mainstream in a significant way,” he said, describing his company’s push behind this technology was on par with the way it pushed forward camera phones. Specifically, he said that GPS – married with the other new technologies – presented an opportunity for “super exciting” mixed reality games which drew from content in the real world, such as maps, to inform in-game content. “We’re looking into concepts that generate content from the city maps we have available. We’re finding ways of making gameplay relevant,” he said, saying such data could be used in a racing game, for instance, to drive a player’s emotional involvement in their game.