Better visualisation sells the concept

Tom Shelley reports on how improved CAD derived visualisations are being used to sell concepts and products even before they have been manufactured

Most CAD packages offer some kind of facility to produce 3D visualisations of virtual products. But only dedicated software can give a true impression of how they will look in the real world and help sell to sell products that have yet to be built. Photorealistic visualisations built on CAD data can be made indistinguishable from photographs and are increasingly used to generate advertising images – especially in the automotive industries – at a small fraction of the cost of taking real photographs of new cars in exotic locations. Autodesk has now stolen a march in this market, by acquired Maya – a 3D visualisation package that competes with its own Max system. The company says it has engineering company customers that buy both, despite the fact that, to the untrained eye, the final results are hard to distinguish. 3ds Max, recently upgraded to version 9, has an improved lighting simulator and can now simulate real sun and sky at different times of day. It uses the same ‘mental ray’ technology that now comes with AutoCAD but in Max, but produces much more realistic renderings. For example, it has a car paint simulator that can reproduce the complex way in which light interacts with metallic paint finishes. It can include soft shadows and patches of rust in backgrounds to enhance the appearance of the pristine car in the foreground. It also has an improved facility called Hair, which was conceived for games and film professionals, but which is useful when simulating grass, fibres and other three dimensional textures. The power of Maya – now on version 8 – is its ability to model more complex shapes because of its superior Nurbs modeller. Autodesk’s Design Visualisation Industry Manager Chris Ruffo said that if one were to model a door handle in the shape of a flower, Maya would be the tool to use. Many automotive companies use Maya as a complement to Autodesk AliasTools (formerly Studio) as an animation tool to create photo real images and animations for design review. An example would be one showing a prototype car driving down a country road, rustling up the leaves as it passes. The design data is created in AliasTools and imported into Maya for animation, effects and rendering. It is composited with a live action background using a tool such as Autodesk Combustion. These animations enable automotive manufacturers to get an idea of what their designs would look like in natural, real world settings. At the launch event, we were shown an example of a car interior in which Max had been used for most of the rendering setup, but Maya had been used to create the natural looking ripples on the car’s bucket seats using Maya Cloth. Maya also has a ‘Cartoon Shader’ that helps visualise industrial products yet to be fully modelled. Maya additionally has a more sophisticated CAD data input capability, making it easier to import Pro/Engineer or SolidWorks files. Catia files can be brought into Autodesk AliasTools for translation and subsequently imported into Maya. With 3ds Max, it is more usual to import using IGES but this always runs the risk of resulting in data loss or corruption. 3ds Max, incidentally, is still available as a lighter Viz version. Mac users traditionally use Maya in preference to anything else, but in the end, the choice between 3ds Max and Maya often comes down to user preference. Autodesk Pointers * 3ds Max and Maya have been substantially upgraded * 3ds Max is used by most automotive companies for visualisation, but many use occasional seats of Maya in addition * Maya has the better Nurbs modeller for complex shapes and direct file input capabilities for models generated with Pro/Engineer and SolidWorks