Entertainment for Architects

27 Feb, 2008 By: Kenneth Wong

Autodesk 3ds Max takes aim at architectural visualization.

How would your Revit project look in 3ds Max, the same software used to spawn digital legions in computer games like Rome: Total War? Slowly but steadily, Autodesk’s architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) portfolio and its media and entertainment (M&E) products are coming together. At the recent Autodesk World Press Days, the company highlighted its latest efforts on this front.

Exposing Daylight
How realistically does light behave in Autodesk 3ds Max 2009? In the upcoming design-centric version of Max, branded as 3ds Max Design, Autodesk aims to make lighting simulation accurate enough to perform daylighting studies in architectural projects destined for LEED 8.1 accreditation. To that end, the application's Exposure technology provides output not only as rendered images but as numerical data (downloadable as Excel data), representing the distribution of light intensity across space.

"Exposure is unique to 3ds Max Design," said Rick Champagne, product marketing manager for Autodesk’s M&E Division. Listing the new version’s key features and benefits, Autodesk states, "In addition to light metering functionality with graphical output, Exposure also features the popular 3ds Max sun and sky models."

With the introduction of Exposure, 3ds Max Design tiptoes ever so slightly toward energy efficiency modeling, a field currently dominated by specialized packages such as ECOTECT (from the UK-based Square One Research) and IES-VE (Integrated Environment Solutions <Virtual Environment>). It’s highly unlikely that 3ds Max, with a long history in filmmaking and game development, will morph into an energy analysis package. The creation of 3ds Max Design is but Autodesk’s acknowledgment of the growing segment of 3ds Max users in architectural and industrial design visualization.

To prove 3ds Max Design is capable of more than just cosmetic rendering, Autodesk is putting the software under the microscope of regulatory bodies, beginning with the Canadian National Research Council (NRC). In December 2007, reflecting on Autodesk University 2007, Ken Pimentel, Autodesk’s senior product manager for 3ds Max, wrote in his blog Maxed Out, "We’ve been working with the NRC to validate the rendering of 3ds Max to physical reality. We already know we're very accurate and that many lighting firms use our tools, but we want to remove all doubt. Watch for results from this next year."

"The software can’t give you LEED accreditation," clarified Chris Ruffo, the design visualization industry manager for Autodesk’s M&E Division. "It’s basically a tool the architects can use to inform themselves and clients on the lighting conditions in a design."

Heather Livingston photo
Exposure, a new feature exclusive to the upcoming Autodesk Max Design 2009, is aimed at daylighting analysis for architects pursuing LEED 8.1 accreditation.

Materialistic Concerns
Tighter integration with Revit comes in the form of Recognize, an FBX-based scene-loading feature, and ProMaterials, a library for mental ray software.

"Using Recognize scene loading, you can import your geometry, lights, cameras, and materials with accuracy into 3ds Max Design," Champagne said, adding that ProMaterials are "physically real materials, based on the manufacturers’ data. They are also in Revit Architecture."

That causes projects imported from Revit Architecture 2009, which will begin using mental ray as its rendering engine, to appear with the same material patterns and properties in 3ds Max Design with little or no user intervention.

Heather Livingston photo
Both Revit Architecture and Autodesk 3ds Max Design share ProMaterials, a materials library based on real-world physical characteristics supplied by manufacturers.

More Revelations
With Reveal, another feature in 3ds Max 2009, users get a toolset to experiment with selective rendering. Champagne said that in Reveal "you can render a scene minus a specific object, render a single object, or choose a certain area within the frame buffer to render."

This feature, he believes, would encourage users who have, in the past, shied away from taking advantage of rendering technologies. "The idea behind this feature is to provide our customers with the flexibility to iterate much more rapidly during the rendering stage. This opens the doors to further creativity due to the constraints of having to render an entire scene being lifted," he said.

Whereas Autodesk VIZ is a limited subset of 3ds Max 9 (as described in Autodesk’s FAQ document for 3ds Max 2009), 3ds Max Design is supposed to be a customized installation of 3ds Max tailored for architects, engineers, designers, and visualization artists supporting them. Therefore, 3ds Max Design’s tutorial files and sample files will be specifically aimed at the design group.

Autodesk has ended development of VIZ. Instead, the company plans to dedicate its resources to 3ds Max and 3ds Max Design. New commercial licenses of Autodesk VIZ will be available for purchase until August 1, 2008, after which it will no longer be sold. “We will be offering cross-grade promotions for VIZ customers who would like to switch to 3ds Max Design, beginning March 31, 2008,” Champagne said.

3ds Max and 3ds Max Design share the same binary code. In fact, if you are currently on subscription for 3ds Max 2008, you will eventually receive a DVD installation package that contains both versions. So you can choose to install/upgrade to 3ds Max or 3ds Max Design. You just can’t install both.

In the FAQ document for Max 2009, Autodesk explains, "You will only be able to install 3ds Max or 3ds Max Design on any given computer system. To switch between the products, you will need to uninstall one product before installing the other product."

Lunchtime Visualization
New details emerge about an R&D project codenamed Newport, previously unveiled at Autodesk University 2007. Sean Young, Autodesk’s project manager for Newport, thinks he knows how architects prefer their visualization workflow to be.

Not every architect wants to learn 3ds Max. So Young asked, "What if visualization was easy? What if it can be learned over lunch?” Newport is supposed to make it possible for architects to create stunning graphics at any stage of the design process. 2D/3D files from AutoCAD, Inventor, and Revit are expected to be among the formats supported in Newport’s workflow.

"With Newport, architects can create a scene once, and dial in the required views, from photorealistic to stylistic, as the visualization requirements evolve," Young explained. "Newport should be able to provide a variety of output options, from real-time presentation to HD-quality animation sequences," he said.

Being a publicly traded company, Autodesk spokespersons cautiously avoided referring to Newport as a product on the company’s roadmap. But judging from the description provided to the press and the demonstrations, we may conclude, at the end of the R&D project, the company will most likely deliver a technology that gives visualization power that rivals 3ds Max -- without the learning curve of 3ds Max.

“The general idea is to use M&E technologies in the design space in a different way,” said Ruffo. For an example of such usage, read “Visualization with Attitude” (AEC Tech News #218), featuring Neoscape, an architectural visualization firm.

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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