Animation Possibilities for AEC

5 Sep, 2007 By: Kenneth Wong

At SIGGRAPH 2007, Massive and Houdini reveal how artificial intelligence and city-generation technologies from film and game industries might serve the architecture field.

At last month's SIGGRAPH 2007, an annual gathering of computer graphics and interactive technologies professionals in San Diego , California , Stephen Regelous, the founder of Massive Software, came to address the computing masses -- the Windows masses, to be precise. Winner of an Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences award in 2004, Regelous is the man who helped Peter Jackson assemble an Orc army for The Lord of the Rings and who kept the traffic flowing smoothly (excepting the intentional accidents Jackson himself demanded) in 1930s’ New York in King Kong.

Regelous doesn’t speak the Orcs' gibberish or know the traffic conditions of Capone-era New York . He simply gave the computer-generated creatures and vehicles a certain degree of autonomy with Massive, described by his company as a “3D animation system for generating crowd-related visual effects.”

The software, previously available only on Linux, marked its entrance to the Windows environment with the announcement of version 3 at SIGGRAPH. “If there is one single feature that customers have been asking for over others, it would have to be support for Windows,” said Regelous.

Can the artificial intelligence (AI) engine that has served moviemakers also be of service to architects and civil engineers? Can what has entertained moviegoers also be a simulation platform for the building profession? Some windows of opportunity may have just opened on that front.

Your Own Private Agent Smith
Massive AI characters are known as agents ($1,499-$2,499 each), which you can use to populate a digital environment. The current ready-to-run agent library includes these characters:

  • Locomotion Agent, for generating extras who run, walk, stand, and sit
  • Stadium Agent, for populating a stadium with spectators who quietly watch an event and provide frenzied cheering when appropriate
  • Ambient Agent, for creating low-key background activities, such as people milling about, engaging in casual conversation, and talking on a cell phone
  • Mayhem Agent, for causing public disorder of all kinds, including riots, political protests, mass panic, and disaster scenarios
  • Combat Sword Agent, for amassing combatants with shields and swords

These agents are prebuilt with skeletons, motions, AI, geometry, cloth, textures, shaders, and controls. To run the agents, you need to purchase a license of either Massive Jet ($5,999, plus $1,299 per year for upgrades and support) or Massive Prime ($17,999, plus $3,999 per year for upgrades and support). Whether you buy Jet or Prime, you can modify the agent’s appearance, such as its body, skin, or cloth. But Prime gives more control over the agent’s behavior, allowing the user to edit its motion hierarchy tree, brain, range of action, and so on.

“Massive animators use fuzzy logic to design their characters' responses. Instead of a value being black or white, it can be a shade of gray or ‘fuzzy,' giving the character more natural responses than the on/off robotic results of binary logic,” reads the product description.

The agent determines its paths and routines based in part on its artificial sight, a patented vision process. Simply put, it charts its course based on the nearby pixels that appear within its line of sight.

According to Regelous, the pixels from the picture of the environment are fed to the agent’s brain. The agent then uses these images to make decisions on where it goes and what it does.

Massive Software’s AI engine, originally used in film and game industries, could find its way into the relatively new architectural simulation market. For example, using Massive agents, which can semi-autonomously navigate in virtual environments, facilities managers might run virtual evacuation scenarios.

From VFX to CAD
Announcing its Artist Talk series at SIGGRAPH last year, Massive wrote, “WETA Digital [a visual effects house] used Massive to create everything from buses, trains, pedestrians and circa-1930s traffic patterns to bats and birds on the movie [King Kong], and also leveraged Massive for the challenging Alcatraz and Golden Gate Bridge sequences in X-Men: The Last Stand.” This raises the possibility of using Massive’s underlying technology to simulate the activities in real-world environments, such as loading dock transactions or inner city traffic patterns.

If Massive Software begins marketing its products to the AEC market, the same AI technology that was used to drive the traffic flow of 1930s-eraNew York in King Kongmight become available for simulating highway traffic in real cities.

“In the beginning, we set our strategy to the Linux market, to the high-end users, to get the feedback from the sophisticated user base so we can add value to the existing products, adding new features. ... But in the last years, we’ve seen a huge explosion in the interest of Massive in the smaller shops,” said Diane Holland, CEO of Massive Software. “One of the things that Windows opens up to is the architectural visualization market. You’ll be hearing about it later this year.”

In later communications with Cadalyst, Holland explained that “Massive is still working with engineering firms to see how Massive works for them and [to study] CAD compatibility, etc., since the standards in this field are much higher than in VFX [visual effects].”

Houdini's Conjuring Act
SIGGRAPH is the annual gathering of digital magicians, so it's not surprising that the beta release of Houdini 9, an animation package from Side Effects Software, was creating a buzz at the event. The software has been credited with the cinematic magic of The Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, Harry Potter, and other renowned series.

Robert Magee, product marketing manager at Side Effects, talked about how Houdini can be used by architects and civil engineers who have an experimental bent. “Houdini’s not for those who are concerned with, for example, the exact measurements of an elevator shaft,” he said. “Look at it as a visualization tool, for the exploration of shapes and forms.”

Houdini's procedural modeling method offers a quick way to generate building prototypes and developing unique structures.. This approach, as described by the company brochure, lets "Houdini store all your actions into networks of nodes that can be easily revised." These networks offer a quick way to create custom-cityscape and terrain generators, Magee added. Let's say you used a series of complicated lofting, extruding, and sweeping operations to come up with a high-rise structure with a dome. You can store the steps involved as a set of nodes that are editable. To come up with a variation of the same high rise, you could simply apply the same node with modified dimensions and parameters.

Houdini Software’s modeling engine gives users a way to generate cities and terrains using a node-based procedural method.

It gets more interesting as you use Houdini to automatically populate -- or paint -- a digital environment with variations of the same objects. You can, for example, set up the parameters of variables (height, width, buffer distances, and so on), and then generate a series of high rises, all derivatives of the original one stored as a node, across the landscape.

The node-based method is particularly useful in creating randomness to mimic reality. The procedural modeling tools work with a variety of geometry types including subdivision surfaces, polygons, NURBS, and Metaballs, according to Side Effects Software.

"Houdini can read IGES and OBJ [Alias Wavefront format]," Magee said, "but if you're talking about points in space, somebody can simply write a Python programming script [to convert 3D CAD files to Houdini]."

Like Massive, Houdini is also available for both Windows and Linux. Houdini Escape is priced at $1,995 per license. The full-featured Houdini Master is $7,995 per license.

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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