The State of Rendering – Vaporizing Pixels
Who remembers AutoCAD r12 for Windows, AME Solid Modeler and McNeel’s Accurender plug-in for AutoCAD as the tools used to begin the journey of architectural 3d rendering and animation during the early to mid nineties? This was during the time of the DOS version of 3d Studio before it became 3ds Max. CAD was still propagating, challenging and would, for the most part, replace traditional drafting. As early visualization specialists, we were using the new wave of CAD applications to run our 3d tools and challenge the traditional artists who were proving a formidable opponent, as it was rare for their paint and canvas to crash. Personally, I was in awe of what they could accomplish without the aid of a computer (still am).
However, one of the biggest advantages to going digital was the repurposing/ modification of electronic data. Meaning, for a traditional drafts person, if a sheet needed to print at a different scale, then a fresh start was required. Unlike the electronic file that could just be modified to suit and then printed. Same goes for rendering. While without doubt, what a traditional artist created was a magnificent piece of art, if an additional camera view was required, it would require another fresh start. However, with the electronic rendering, adjustments would be made, perhaps some additional piece of modeling and texturing would be needed, but an additional view was far less labor intensive (and costly) as the traditional artist.
As hardware advanced, so did the software as did the experience of users. From the Genesis of 3ds DOS came 3ds Max and shortly thereafter, the AEC flavor of 3ds Max known as 3ds Viz. The digital artist in the early/middle nineties was initially, going it alone. Slowly, experience increased and that experienced was shared via conferences like Autodesk University (AU) and organizations like Autodesk User Group International (AUGI). Dovetailing with these trends, local/regional user groups sprung up to help bridge the gap of experience and bring together more seasoned professionals who were willing to share their wealth of new found experience and skills. I benefited greatly from AU & AUGI, which resulted in me and others on this area to form the Florida Visualization User Group. We figured we couldn’t be the only ones suffering and rejoicing in silence. With this group (and others like it around the globe thanks to the expanding use of Internet services), we were able to sharpen our skills with the transfer of knowledge tip and tricks as well as interact with the developers of the applications we were using/pioneering. In parallel, we noticed more articles were being published about this new industry. Greater vocabulary was developing in regards to ‘drag and drop’ models to use, pre created textures to select and lights that started to try and emulate real world lighting (be it primitive by today’s standards). Leading the way into real world textures and lighting was the powerhouse Lightscape. Plugins were taking full advantage of the open architecture of 3ds Max and Viz which gave us a lighting plugin called Radio Ray (an early version of global Illumination). Then came Radiosity and now we have full blown Mental Ray as the standard global illumination rendering engine inside of what was VIZ and is now 3ds Max Design, the AEC Industries version of the Flagship 3ds Max.
A similar journey as lights and textures was the experience with modeling. The use of AutoCAD plug-ins like Ketiv’s ArchT was a mainstay for many before slowly being phased out as Autodesk released AEC parametric modeling capabilities in the form of Architectural Desktop (ADT). Now we could not only create parametric walls, windows etc. but we could add textures to them that would be carried into 3ds Viz via the new File Linking capability. For a short while, the file link was even a two way data share street. Meaning, for example, if you wanted to modify a door inside of 3ds Viz on a model that was file linked from ADT, you could save it back to ADT. Real time design changes via File Linking became a powerful workflow tool that helped solidify digital renderings and animations as an established form of visual presentations for the AEC industry (but by this time, not limited to these particular industries).
As ADT was making its way into the architectural design & visualization workflow, another product was emerging called Revit (at that time it was not part of the Autodesk stable of products). So powerful was the emerging technology Revit represented, called BIM, that a modeling fork in the road appeared – what was the application of choice going to be, ADT or Revit? Eventually, Autodesk purchased Revit and added it to its ever growing dominance of the AEC Design and Visualization workflow. While initially, the Revit file had to be saved as a dwg file before it could be imported into 3ds Max Design; the Revit file is now saved as an FBX (a file format that was part of the Alias acquisition by Autodesk) file which not only gives ut the 3d geometry and cameras, but also saves all the Mental Ray textures and lights, thus creating a fast workflow solution for utilizing the benefits of a rendering inside of 3ds Max Design that has proved to be faster than Revit due to it always being optimized for rendering and doesn’t have the same BIM resource overloads.
Not to be left behind, the Engineering and Manufacturing industries were also experiencing development focus by Autodesk as they released applications like Civil 3d for engineering and Inventor for Manufacturing. Both products, as part of the Autodesk stable, were able to be part of the data sharing workflow should a user decide to export out and import into Max/Viz for higher end rendering/animation output. Moving beyond Max and Viz as Max became 3ds Max Design, so the interoperability went from strength to strength. Now we could directly import an Inventor file (and other file formats) for manufacturing visualization and even output to STL file format for rapid prototyping. And on the civil front, with the introduction of Dynamite VSP (later purchased by Autodesk and now part of Max Design and renamed Civil View), Civil 3d files (and other civil cad file formats) can be directly imported as intelligent 3d geometry with textures applied and mapped. A bonus with many of these file formats is as a design changes, so it can be updated dynamically inside of 3ds Max Design.
As applications jockeyed for dominance of market share, the acquisition of Alias also added not only Maya to the list of options, but also other Alias applications like Showcase and other Industrial Design modeling and rendering options. Add to the list Navisworks for real time interactions, clash detection, construction process timeline animation of data created in other applications and you’ll see how far digital art for the AEC industry has come since the early nineties.
To bring us up to date (as of Nov 2011), the Autodesk web site list of rendering options continues to grow. You can render from within engineering applications like AutoCAD, AutoCAD for Architecture, Revit, Civil 3d and Inventor to name a few of the main engineering design applications. To take those renderings to the next level clearly 3ds Max Design holds a strong place as lead contender for high end visualization. From within 3ds Max Design you have even more rendering options either built in or plugged in. Mental Ray, Iray and Quick-silver are rendering engines built in. Vray, Final Render and Maxwell options for ‘plugged in’ rendering engines that offer optimized tools to further enhance the rendering workflow.
So what next? Well, it would appear that pixels are evaporating into the Cloud Rendering Environment and not just for applications solely designed and optimized for rendering, but engineering design applications too, with Revit being the one that comes to mind. The Achilles heel of rendering in Revit has been render times.
Unlike 3ds Max Design that benefits from not only being optimized for rendering from its inception, but also the network rendering software known as Backburner, Revit cannot take advantage of multiple machines to rendering and thus is dependent on the speed of the machine Revit is installed on. This isn’t a deal breaker typically because hardware today is more than able to deliver acceptable results. However, as limits of design and software use are increased, so do render times. Thus, results in the Cloud environment appear to offer not just the best speed solution, but project collaboration solution too.
And on to the next generation of rendering tools: Reflex Render from Advanced AEC Solutions www.aaecs.com. Just when it seemed enough to create fairly decent renderings with the high-powered software tools at hand, we have in our midst a hybrid of sorts. With a fairly clever GUI tied into cloud computing, this new visualization software allows the designer/engineer to work from within Revit to move their camera positions around to freely view any position around or within their design, and it does this extremely fast. What once had taken tens of hours to develop a rendering, now takes minutes, and with little setup time. You focus on your design and Reflex Render creates a stunning visualization.