Media and Entertainment suites add powerful new features for crowds, characters, and reality capture.
Autodesk M&E is a group stuck in the doldrums of the video effects industry. It has not really recovered from the recession, which cut the legs out from under much of the creative industry. However, we’ve seen other areas recover including the architecture industry, advertising, and other creative fields. Autodesk’s M&E group, however, has not been able to grow as convincingly as some of its competitors including Adobe and the Maxon division of Nemetschek.
As a result, is Autodesk revamping and searching for broader markets for M&E products. M&E chief Marc Petit has left the company. So far he is being replaced by a committee. Autodesk VP of Marketing Chris Bradshaw is overseeing the group while a search for Petit’s replacement is conducted. The rollout for Autodesk’s 2014 M&E products was conducted by Maurice Patel and Rob Hoffman, well-known figures in the M&E community. Patel has been the Marketing chief for M&E, but when Autodesk shuffled their marketing into a corporate tier under Bradshaw, Patel had broader duties. Hoffman has long been product marketing manager for M&E products.
In their presentation, Patel and Hoffman confirmed Autodesk’s interest in extending their products to a broader market. The 2014 rollout included news for Maya, 3ds Max, MotionBuilder, Mudbox, Softimage, and Sketchbook Designer 2014. One of the welcome changes that have come over the last few years is dramatically improved interoperability between the products, and Autodesk says it has continued with that work.
Autodesk continues to sell its products standalone but offers a better deal when purchased in one of the suites.
Autodesk’s 3ds Max adds some features people have been waiting for since they were previewed online and at Autodesk University. Some of the features will be most helpful to people using Max for visualizations, pre-viz, etc. For instance, the new product has a tool for adding people to a scene quickly. It’s called Populate. Users can draw a trail, and the software will add people who generally follow that trail. The scene can be tweaked to adjust the demographics of your wandering peeps. For more complex applications in games and video, for instance, 3ds Max is also getting instancing capabilities so that characters can be multiplied and controlled for crowd scenes.
Autodesk has also added more power and capabilities to the particle software within Max including the ability to cache particles to disk for performance. The new version also has support for vector maps as surfaces, which, says Autodesk, is helpful because surfaces used will maintain their fine lines when scaled, but it’s also useful for bringing in CAD data. Max now has support for SVG, AutoCAD pattern files, and Illustrator. Other new tools include better perspective matching and more flexible tools for working with foregrounds against back planes.
In all, while there are new features for all users, people using 3ds Max for visualizing designs in AEC will probably be most pleased about the new features.
Maya has gotten extensive updates. The modeler has seen an extreme makeover with tools to make selections and modifications an easier and more connected process. New features include the ability to select “like” features and perform modifications on all of them. Groups of selections can be made and similar modifications applied. Geometry can be built over surfaces to retopologize geometry. Autodesk notes that features like these will be especially useful for content brought in from 3D scans. For animators and production managers, the new Grease Pencil feature lets people sketch in ideas in a scene; ghosting allows the sketches to be changed over time with ghosts of previous frames to use as a guide, and the ghosting feature is customizable. Also, new improvements to joint tools enable easier rigging and use of symmetry.
New Paint Effects can interact with geometry, enabling capabilities such as being able to deform 3D paint effects to geometry and control the level of attraction, the “pull,” if you will, of the geometry to the paint effect. Maya has been gradually getting better node-editing capabilities that have been made possible by the ICE (Interactive Creative Environment) technology first appearing in Softimage. This time around, navigation and use of the Node Panel is enhanced with the ability to turn levels on and off. There are short-cut keys and guides to remind artists what they can and can’t do. The Node Panel is a powerful tool that extends various types of programmability to users in a visual form that shows dependencies, etc., and Autodesk is making it more powerful.
Viewport 2.0 takes advantage of DX11 to enable a high-quality visual, real-time working environment. Finally, Autodesk has added the new Scene Assembly to enable better handling of large assemblies. It lets users define groups of assemblies and assign representations to them from simple bounding box to fully rendered, editable Maya objects. The feature supports the ability to save to Alembic containers as well. A GPU cache can be created for the assemblies. Scene Assembly supports Viewport 2.0 so complex scenes can be loaded from the GPU cache in the background and interacted with immediately. (You’d probably better watch the video on this one).
Softimage’s strength in the Autodesk universe is its ability to work with characters including groups of characters. Autodesk has spent a lot of time upgrading Softimage’s Crowd FX capabilities with improvements to the ICE (Interactive Creative Environment) of Softimage. The ability to randomize and change actions of characters has been enhanced and also the ability to add transformations to character geometry to increase the individualization within crowds. The camera sequencer toolset enables users to cut between multiple cameras to edit clips. Behaviors established in ICE can be interactively overridden to fine-tune a scene. The Viewport in Softimage has been improved with sliders for improve control over objects in the Viewport. Autodesk has extended FBX in Softimage with support for animation exchange through FBX 2014 for increased interoperability with other Autodesk products.
MotionBuilder is getting more controls over manipulating and refining motion capture. Flexible MoCap is described as an optical data marker solver, and just like it sounds, it enables markers to be associated with joints. Improvements to Motion Builder’s interface provide cues with markers, and animators can accept the program’s recommendations for rigging choices. A new Custom Renderer API lets companies work with the renderers of their choice within the viewport. Autodesk has added file referencing via an API, which enables better performance within Motion Builder. Multiple instances of a file can be referenced within a model. Reference files can be managed via scripts, and in 2014, Autodesk has integrated the PySide utility, which gives users access to Python from within the program. Cameras and lights can be more easily positioned with the ability to “look through” the object.
As it has in Maya, Autodesk has improved the ability to add and edit topology in 3D models. And as in Maya, this capability will come in handy using images brought in from scans and photo capture techniques. Meshes can be healed to fix holes, and unwanted faces can be deleted or adjusted. Mudbox has also gotten new tools for optimizing meshes so that they can be more manageable and not as large as a heavily sculpted model might be at first. New Topologies can be computed automatically or manually adjusted. And, users can redefine the topology and specify how Mudbox deals with areas by defining “hard” and “soft” constraints.
One feature that’s going to make people happy is multi-touch support. Mudbox will have increased support for multi-touch through the Wacom interface for its professional tablets and also Windows. The capability appeared in 2012, but Autodesk is increasing the functionality with support for gestures and more power for multi-touch. The end goal of creating a more sculptural, tactile feel with a two-handed process that lets users avoid trips to the keyboard as much as possible.
SketchBook Designer 2014
New features in SketchBook Designer improve compositing capabilities, color manipulation, and mixed media. SketchBook Designer features a dynamic user interface that is optimized for pen and mouse interaction.
So, what do we have?
For some time now 3ds Max has been increasingly optimized for use in AEC, visualization, and pre-viz applications, and we’re seeing that trend continue. Autodesk’s enthusiasm for Digital Reality tools is evident as the company builds better bridges between the data brought in via scan and photogrammetry methods, and digital editing tools. Autodesk has been investing heavily in this area, and it’s clear they’re putting the technology to work. Also, Autodesk is paying close attention to the ways in which users are working with paint tools and modeling and the ways in which they can work more interactively with large data sets. The attention to multi-touch is likely to pay off in new ways to interact with content using next-generation devices such as Surface tablets and PCs.
The company has unveiled their website for the new products called Unfold, and you can probably get a much better idea of what’s going on there, especially if you have specific areas you’re interested in. One final observation: it’s clear Autodesk does not work in a vacuum— the company pays a lot of attention to what’s going on in the industry around them, and we’re seeing Autodesk address competitors like Pixologic, which has a powerful sculpting tool in Zbrush, and The Foundry, which competes with 3D modeling and rendering (Luxology) and Paint (Mari).
If there’s one thing Autodesk can do, it’s restructure. The company has seemed to find new life in many of its larger shuffles, and this is a big one for the M&E group. This is a shift that’s just getting started.