How to Launch a Product Without the Product7 Aug, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong
Ford's creative design agency uses virtual photography to create marketing materials for vehicles still in development
Last year, Burrows, Ford's design agency in the United Kingdom, dispatched a team to Valencia, Spain, to shoot still images. The project was part of a new campaign to promote two new Ford models -- the Galaxy and the S-Max -- that debuted at Autoshow Geneva 2006 in March.
The creative team at Burrows imagined a brochure showcasing the Galaxy inside Valencia's Science Park. They thought the futuristic backdrop would complement the car's elegant design. So the photographers began snapping pictures of the interiors of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava's transparent domes and corridors. Observers, however, were a bit perplexed. "You say you're working on a car campaign," they inquired, "but where is the car?"
The Hidden Galaxy
The car, explained Richard Wright, head of operations at Burrows, was delivered as CAD data. Using the IGES- and VRML-format data supplied by Ford's R&D facility, Burrows recreated the Galaxy and the S-Max models using its own trademarked N.visage visualization system. The 3D models were then rendered into high-resolution images virtually indistinguishable from photographs using RenderDrive, an advanced ray-tracing solution from ARTVPS.
"[Virtual photography] can put clients' cars in locations that were previously impossible, either because of physical logistics or expensive transportation costs," Wright points out, "for example, putting a car at the top of the Alps or inside an architecturally striking but totally inaccessible building."
This approach also allows Burrows to present a vehicle's interior from angles that a photographer might find physically impossible to shoot -- for instance, a cross-section with the roof removed, a view from inside the engine or a shot of the vehicle's underside.
"We work very closely with the client to ensure we are made aware of as many late changes [in the design] as possible," says Wright. "As a safety net, we get all images approved for product correctness. ..."
Similarly, Burrows has used its N.visage technology to produce still images, animation footage and marketing collateral for other automotive clients, which include Lincoln Mercury, Jaguar, Land Rover and Mazda. The same technology has also served nonautomotive clients, including Heidelberg and Xerox.
Parking a Digital Car
The physical environment of the Science Park was captured in HDRI [high dynamic range imaging], a method used to accurately represent the wide range of light-intensity levels found in real scenes, from deep shadows to direct sunlight.
RenderDrive's creator ARTVPS explains the technology this way: "The data recorded by an HDR image is a much closer representation to the range of brightness levels perceived in the real world and is a very powerful tool for the 3D visualiser."
According to Burrows, "Using a specialist Spheron HDR Camera available from ARTVPS, a 360-degree environment shot is captured that contains all the lighting exposure information from the scene. This detailed image information is then used to accurately reflect the environment on to the computer-generated car."
"The 3D model was prepared using [Autodesk] 3ds Max," Wright explains. "Once the vehicle was in the correct specification, it was rendered using ARTVPS RenderDrive technology. The lighting [on the 3D model] is an exact match of the lighting at the location. This is achieved using the captured environment and some additional 3D light effects where needed."
An image of the Ford Galaxy inside the Science Park in Valencia, Spain, made possible by virtual photography.
Rendering for the Impatient
Burrows relies on its in-house render farm, made up of more than 100 servers dedicated to rendering jobs, to churn out high-resolution images, each of which can take "two to three days with an average file size of 200MB," Wright estimates. The firm has been using ARTVPS RenderDrive technology since 2000 to produce photorealistic images of Ford Thunderbird, Ford Fiesta and Ford TransitConnect models based on manufacturing data.
These virtual interior shots might be possible using traditional photography but could require tearing up the roof or the side of the vehicle -- something an automaker might or might not be willing to do to obtain marketing collateral.
RenderDrive, a 3D rendering system, and PURE, a 3D rendering workstation add-in board, are designed to be application-independent. Designed to significantly reduce the rendering time required in computing-intensive visualization projects, these products can be used with 3ds Max as well as Autodesk's VIZ and Maya.
RenderDrive 6400, the latest series from ARTVPS, includes custom hardware with the company's dedicated ray-tracing processors to operate as a dedicated render farm. The product comes with a TCP/IP Fast Ethernet network interface accessible to multiple users and a set of Web-based job scheduling and management tools.