General Software

Cadalyst MCAD Tech News #127 (August 19, 2004)

18 Aug, 2004

Last week I had the chance to attend the final day of the 31st annual SIGGRAPH event, held in Los Angeles. Although known more as a computer graphics and animation show, SIGGRAPH offered a fair share of interesting software and hardware products related to the MCAD industry, so let's recap.

Robert McNeel and Associates was at the show demonstrating its Rhino software, a popular 3D surfacing tool employed by many MCAD users. Though v4.0 isn't due out until sometime in 2005, I received a preview of it. For a modeling program that already has almost everything, I was surprised at the number of new tools planned for v4.0. For starters, a new warping tool can taper, bend, and twist models. Not only was the interface easy to use, the results were deformed models that were still "clean" -- that is, no problem surfaces were created, and the number of total surfaces did not dramatically increase. There was also an assortment of other new deformation tools. Another new tool takes a model and maps it to the face of another model, ideal for users who need to create designs with embossed features. Overall, Rhino 4.0 looks like another strong release from Robert McNeel and Associates.

Another general-purpose 3D modeling tool sometimes employed by MCAD users is form.Z from auto*des*sys. This company used the SIGGRAPH event to announce that v4.5 will be available in September 2004. The new feature list is quite extensive, and a few additions are worth noting. For one, the Cloning command allows users to duplicate shapes while maintaining associativity to the original. Users creating mechanical elements will probably like the new Frame command. Although I didn't see it, a new Draft Sweep tool sounds like it will come in handy for those who need to create parts with taper. All users will benefit from promised increases in speed, smoother fonts, improved rendering, and new and improved diagnostic and healing tools.

Perhaps more than any other event, SIGGRAPH is the place to be for exciting hardware announcements. Though no brand-new technologies were introduced this year, there were several interesting announcements. The one that garnered the most attention was a new haptic system from SensAble Technologies. Haptic technology employs what is known as force feedback. Force feedback lets users experience the sense that they are sculpting an actual object, when in reality they are employing digital tools to sculpt a virtual mass on their computer screen via a robot-type arm. (Click here for a review I wrote on a similar Sensible product.)

The new system is based on SensAble's Omni product, introduced late last year, which is now being bundled with a new version of its powerful design software, FreeForm Concept, for only $4,900. In addition, SensAble also introduced a developer version of the Omni, with a demo application called Splodge, for $800. This developer bundle is designed to take advantage of another new announcement - the availability of plug-ins for popular 3D modeling programs such as Rhino and 3ds max 6 from Discreet. With this low cost developer kit and the new plug-in technology, developers can create interfaces with other 3D programs. SensAble still offers higher-priced bundles that include the more accurate PHANTOM Desktop haptic device along with FreeFrom Modeling Plus software for $28,000. The software includes automated tools for creating plastic parts, such as fillets, shells, and mold-related commands, and it outputs NURBS surfaces.

There were also, as usual, a number of 3D displays from companies such as Kodak, X3D, and Ampronix. They all had autostereoscopic technology, which is a 3D display that doesn't require special glasses, but I felt Ampronix  had the most impressive, sharpest displays. The technology is still not cheap, as even the low-end 3D monitors at SIGGRAPH start at $5,000. However, the productivity benefits could quickly pay for them. Note that DTI, a company not at the event, offers autostereoscopic monitors that start at $2,000.

Every time I do make it to SIGGRAPH, one of the first areas I visit is the Emerging Technologies section. Over the years I've seen many of these raw ideas move to the show floor as viable products.

Continuing on the subject of haptics, NTT Cyber Solution Laboratories was showing a force feedback interface that uses air jets, thereby eliminating wires and robotic arms. After donning a pair of 3D glasses, the user can warp a basic virtual shape while the air jets provide resistance. It will be interesting to see if this gets developed to handle more complex shapes and what solution NTT comes up with.

I saw many projection-type systems. One used an array of lenses to allow the user to rotate, by an angle limited to 5 or 10 degrees, a live video feed. Another was a flat-panel display placed parallel to the ground that showed a different image when viewed from each one of its four sides. I can imagine this being used in future collaboration sessions, where users sit around this screen and receive only the information that pertains to their field of expertise or the language they speak.

All of these devices were interesting, but the one we are probably the closest to seeing in the local computer store is Sunnybrook Technologies' DHR (High Dynamic Range) technology display. One of the measures used to determine how realistic a monitor can display an image is its dynamic range. This number essentially measures the difference between the lightest and darkest pixel on the screen. With most monitors, it's 300:1 or 400:1. With the Sunnybrook HDR display, it's 40,000:1. The images I saw were incredibly rich and lifelike-important as MCAD software continues to achieve higher rendering quality.

SIGGRAPH 2005 will also be in Los Angeles. So if you can grab a day to spend in LA, the dates are August 2-4. I think you'll enjoy yourself, and you may find the flood of creativity will rejuvenate your own creative juices.