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Autodesk Improves Your Creative Experience – Again!

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

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Extended Functionality for Maya LT, Maya, and 3ds Max

Over the course of each year the Autodesk team adds feature drops, called ‘extensions,’ to their software products.  2013 was no exception.  In fact it was a year when Autodesk introduced Maya LT, their new game asset creation tool, and then massively upgraded it along with Maya and 3ds Max.

The majority of these new extensions come from listening to users and then giving them what they want and need fast and, they get much of their input from ‘AREA.’  Autodesk’s ‘AREA’  is an online resource where you and other users can learn what the community is currently interested in and where you can add your own requests, make comments, learn, showcase your work, download assets and share video tutorials, scripts and other material of interest to the community.  You can go to AREA by simply navigating to area.autodesk.com and, to keep updated and participate in the latest scuttlebutt just select the software you’re interested in from the Forum drop down menu.

I had the opportunity to learn about the new additions to these flagship creation tools from Robert Hoffman who heads up marketing for Autodesk’s M&E product group and Wesley Adams, who spearheads product marketing for Maya LT.   Although I did receive and will present here a list of the top extensions added to these three powerful tools I’ve also included many valuable insights gleaned from my discussion with these two pros.

So, who gets all these new updates?

All the extension updates we’ll cover here are available to customers that have purchased an Autodesk Subscription plan, or who are on active rental plans.  They are not available in the base versions of the 2014 releases of their respective products.

Maya LT – Focus on Game Developers

I’m presenting Maya LT first since it is the youngest of the three primary packages from Autodesk’s Media & Entertainment group.   Maya LT was developed to meet the needs of small indie game developers, and is basically a stripped down version of Maya that includes all the essential game development tools found in Maya plus a few more that are game specific, and all for a very affordable one-time cost of just $795.  However, since game developers don’t need the software on a perpetual basis they can optionally rent Maya LT for $50/Month or, if they’d like, they can rent the software on an annual basis for $400 bringing the monthly cost down to just $35.  Similar plans are also available for Maya and 3ds Max, albeit at different price points.

What’s New in Maya LT 2014 

Mel Scripting & .obj

The big news is that MEL scripting capability has been ported in from Maya as an extension and added as a feature so you can now customize workflows and program your 3D modeling experience while working in Maya LT!

The ability to export your models in .obj format has also been added so you can easily share your work without worrying about compatibility issues.

Send to Unity workflow

Now, using ‘Send to Unity’s’ improved workflow you can point Maya LT to your Unity project and simply send your 3D assets directly to a targeted Unity project folder, and you’re able to do this in whatever polygonal resolution you want with no cap on resolution.

Increased Polygon Count FBX Support for All Game Engines

Maya LT now lets you to export selected models or an entire scene with up to 65,000 polygons in FBX format.  This increase from the tool’s initial 25,000 polygon export limit allows artists to export higher resolution models and larger environments for use in all FBX format supported game engines.

New Retopology Toolset

With NEX modeling technology, first introduced in Maya 2014, you’re now able to ‘retopologize’ messy meshes and manually clean them up. This can be very useful when you import a scanned object’s data into the tool.  Although the object’s topology geometry may look good, its polygonal ‘mesh may be a mess,’ it’s not clean, full of holes and not easily ‘animateable.’  By using the Quad Draw tool with its new Relax and Tweak feature, with Soft Selection, and a new interactive Edge Extend tool artists can now optimize their meshes for cleaner deformations and better performance all directly within Maya LT.

Better Booleans

By very popular demand – Voce Populi on AREA!   Both Maya and Maya LT now employ a robust and efficient new library for faster and more reliable Boolean operations on polygonal geometry.

FBX Export Improvement

Improved support for exporting geometry normals (binormals), enabling more consistent surface shading when assets are rendered in-engine.

What’s New in Maya 2014 – Democracy in Action!

In addition to the two features we highlighted above in Maya LT features; ‘Better Booleans’ and the ‘New Retopology Toolset,’ Maya 2014 also boasts two new and very powerful extensions; the democratic XGen Arbitrary Primitive Generator and the Bullet Physics enhancement plug-in for realistic kinetic simulations.

The XGen Arbitrary Primitive Generator

The big production houses create specialized in-house technologies to achieve advanced high-tech effects and a look that is in sync with their image.  These specialized and advanced tools are only held by a small number of people doing extraordinary work.  In Autodesk’s push to democratize technology they have now added XGen technology to Maya 2014.  Now, Maya artists have the same access to the XGen Arbitrary Primitive Generator technology used by Walt Disney Animation Studios in the hit animated films Tangled, and Bolt, and by Pixar Animation Studios in Toy Story 3.

XGen technology or Arbitrary Perimeter Generation empowers artists to generate curves, spheres, or custom geometry on the surface of any polygonal mesh.  This technology allows artists to create things like hair, fur or feathers and they can also create forests or desolate landscapes with rocks and jagged outcroppings, or if they want, they can quickly populate a meadow with grass and flowers or any scene with any type of data, and lots of it.   XGen is extremely efficient so you can create and populate eally complex and incredibly detailed and data-rich environments but still be able to maintain interactivity while you’re working and then get all the fine detail at render time.

Autodesk’s mission here is to take cool high end tools like XGen that have only been available to a small number of people and make them available to everybody. As Robeert Hoffman said, “It’s all about giving people the best tools we can, and the good thing is that the XGen toolset in Maya 2014 has been proven for years and used extensively by the major studios before being adapted.   It is a major piece of technology.”

Bullet Physics Enhancements

This is a major enhancement to the bullet physics plug-in. AMD creates some very interesting technologies, and the original Bullet Physics plug-in delivered in conjunction with Autodesk was integrated into Maya some years ago

This new extension for Maya 2014, also in conjunction with AMD delivers several enhancements to the Bullet plug-in enabling artists to use the open source bullet physics engine to create large-scale, highly realistic dynamic and kinematic simulations within Maya.  It offers you the ability to create compound collision shapes from multiple meshes; produces better collisions with concave shapes and thanks to a new Hierarchical Approximate Convex Decomposition (HACD) algorithm; integrates with Maya Forces; and delivers rigid sets for increased scalability for the artist.

What’s New in 3ds Max 2014

Point Cloud Support

With this new capability designers and artists can create precise models from real-world environments by importing massive data sets of scanned data captured from reality as point clouds. This data is then displayed as editable geometry in the 3DS Max viewport in true color where you’re able to make adjustments and create new geometry in context by snapping to point cloud vertices.

Designers, for example, can display a building they’re creating in context with a cityscape that surrounds it by taking a LIDR scan of the environment and then importing it as cloud data directly into the 3ds Max viewport.

Support for .rcp and .rcs file formats also lets designers and artists take advantage of ‘connected reality capture workflow’ with other Autodesk solutions, including: Autodesk® ReCap™Studio, AutoCAD®, Autodesk® Revit®, and Autodesk® Inventor® software.

Python Scripting

Adding Python scripting empowers developers and technical directors to get the most versatility from this already versatile tool.  Rob Hoffman told me that many 3DS Max users think that adding the popular and easy to learn Python Scripting language is “the cat’s meow” because it now gives them the ability to customize and extend the software’s functionality.  For example, scripting allows you add new capabilities, automate the software for respective tasks and more while the software coexists in a production pipe-line in concert with all the other tool sets.

As a bonus, you can also access a subset of the 3DS Max API from Python scripts, including the ability to evaluate MAXScript code.

Stereo Camera

You can now create, adjust and see your creations in stereo right inside 3ds Max.  The new Stereo Camera Feature set is available as a plug-in from the Autodesk Exchange application store at no cost for customers on active Autodesk subscription.  With it you’ll be able to create stereoscopic camera rigs and produce Left Eye, Right Eye, Center, or Anaglyph views in the Nitrous viewport.  In addition to this Passive Stereo viewing mode, customers with a recent AMD FirePro™graphics card and a supported HD3D Active Stereo monitor or equivalent can also take advantage of Active Stereo viewing.

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If you’re not an Autodesk user the best way to explore these new additions to these Autodesk creative products is to try them for yourself.  Autodesk offers free trial versions of all their software and here’s how to get there fast:

Autodesk Maya LT 2014                Explore and Learn            Download Trial Software  (15 days)

Autodesk Maya 2014                     Explore and Learn            Download Trial Software (30- days)

Autodesk 3ds Max 2014                Explore and Learn            Download Trial Software  (30-days)

If you are an Autodesk user and use one of these tools please make sure to check out AREA and also please send your comments, suggestions and recommendations to me here at this blog.

Winners Announced: ShareCG Showcases Big Talent In its Just finished ‘Get Reel Challenge’

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

CONGRATULATIONS!

4 Talented and Skilled Artists – Awarded 4 Great Prizes

ShareCG.com has been around for a while growing organically into a multi-layered society.  ShareCG hosts beginners and their first 3D works, people who just enjoy creating for the sake it and then sharing their accomplishments with fellow CG travelers, students, aspiring professionals and working professionals.  And now, schools, studios, software companies and organizations that are involved in any way with CG are showcasing their work on the site.

ShareCG holds a series of challenges throughout the year aimed at different audience segments.  The just ended ‘Get Reel Challenge’ asked CG artists who model, animate, do VFX work, rigging and more to submit their latest and best demo reels to be judged by a talented group of industry professionals.

Fifty demo reels were entered, and all fifty were outstanding and showcased each entrant’s capabilities and accomplishments perfectly.  In short, there were actually fifty winners, which made it a wee bit difficult for the judges.  But, after many hours and lots of consternation they finally managed to select the four award winners and, with a fan-fare, here they are!

CONGRATULATIONS!

1    Leticia Renaldo is the 1st place winner of a full license of Maxon’s Cinema 4D Studio!  In her 2013 Demo Reel  Leticia showcases work she did as a Gnomon student.   One impressive part of her reel shows how she creatively transposed flat 2D animation art, created by Disney Studios before CG, into extremely accurate and detailed 3D models ready for rigging or placing into a new 3D version of the original Disney film.  Enjoy Letcia’s reel!

2     Daniel Lindsey is the 2nd place winner of HP’s highly accurate Z24i display that’s perfect for both artists and animators.  Daniel ‘s reel demonstrates his professional proficiency across a wide range of skills including rigging, scripting, environment, simulation, modeling, texturing and more.  Watch Daniel’s reel and see for yourself.

3    Stefan Mayr wins 3rd place and a full year of training and resources from digital-tutors.  Stefan is the ultimate CG Generalist and his reel shows his versatility and skill by producing work that’s stylized to fit multiple genres from film, to art, to commercial.  Watch and enjoy Stefan’s  demo reel.

4    Steve Beaucamp wins 4th place and a fully licensed version of Luxion KeyShot 4 so he can now get the rendering speed he needs.   His demo reel also demonstrates a broad range of skill, artistic sensibility across many genres making this a much watch!  Enjoy Steve’s demo reel!

Take a few minutes to relax and enjoy the winner’s demo reels or watch all fifty.   I’m sure you’ll be entertained and amazed!

 

HP ZBook15 Mobile Workstation Review – Is Beauty More Than Skin Deep?

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

HP recently introduced its ZBook series of mobile workstations. After attending the product launch in NYC, I was fortunate enough to get a top of the line HP ZBook 15 mobile workstation to evaluate and discover if this sleek new beauty’s performance promise was more than skin deep.

My evaluation unit was über equipped with the highest performing NVIDIA GPU, included a built-in HP DreamColor Display system and came with the following specifications as supplied:

O/S: Windows 7 Professional 64-bit Service Pack 1
CPU: Intel® Core™ i7-4800MQ with Intel HD Graphics 4600 (2.7 GHz, 6 MB cache, 4 cores)
GPU: NVIDIA Quadro K2100M (Designed specifically for mobile 15.6″ Platforms and the high end of offered GPUs)
Storage: Hard Drive – 500 GB (Includes 32GB Flash Cache and is Expandable to 1.87TB)
System Memory: 16GB RAM – (Expandable to 32GB with 64bit O/S and Quad Core processor)
Display: Full HD 15.6″ diagonal LED-back lit UWVA eDP anti-glare (1920 x 1080) screen with integrated HP DreamColor Display system providing more than a billion color possibilities.
Ports and Connectivity: 2 USB 3.0; 1 USB 2.0; 1 USB 3.0 charging port; 1 Thunderbolt1; 1 DisplayPort; 1 stereo microphone-in/headphone-out combo; 1 RJ-45 Ethernet; wireless;1 docking connector; 1 secondary battery connector; 1 VGA port; 1 SD compatible memory card reader
Other: Webcam with Cyberlink YouCAM control software installed; Optical Storage with Blu-ray read, DVD/CD read/write; fingerprint reader; Kensington lock port
Weight with batteries: Starting at 6.2 lb (2.82 kg)
Warranty: Protected by HP Services, including a limited 3 years parts, 3 years labor, and 3 years on site service (3/3/3) standard warranty.

My first impression of the mobile workstation was the attention to its detail, at many levels: its strong and substantial construction and yes, as you can see above, the ZBook 15 is beautifully designed. Its case is artfully and ergonomically constructed of high-grade burnished aluminum resting on a light weight but strong magnesium chassis that, as I unfortunately learned the hard way, protects the unit from accidental damage.

A Tale of Unintended Consequences – Testing the ZBook 15’s Ruggedness and Durability

Accidents do happen – courtesy of Dr. C. Wacko

I never intended to test this unit’s durability but sometimes life gets in the way. After completing my evaluation, the mobile workstation was sitting closed on the floor directly below my TV stand. I was swapping out a couple of connectors at the rear of my 46” TV and as I nudged the TV to the front of the glass stand-top to gain access, the fifty-pound glass plate unexpectedly tipped forward and slammed forcefully down on top of the closed computer. OMG!

When I saw the two inch recessed gash in the case above the screen I was certain that I had completely destroyed this expensive loaner and quickly but carefully pulled the unit free. I said a few prayers and booted up to find that although the screen had cracked it was still emitting light. There was hope, and I quickly plugged in an external VGA display and miraculously the computer worked perfectly! I do not recommend this as an evaluation method, but it certainly does prove that the ZBook 15 is capable of surviving even the most egregious mishandling and of overcoming the worst of accidents.

Ease of use

The keyboard is well laid out and includes a full numeric keypad, back lit keys, and the TouchPad mouse controller is ideally positioned. Using other portables the fleshy mass under my thumb intermittently rubs against the finger controlled pad while I’m typing, initiating all sorts of unwanted actions and consequences. This never happened to me on the ZBook 15, and to use the workstation with a mouse and avoid this possibility altogether all I had to do was double tap the TouchPad to toggle it off. The ZBook 15 is also equipped with a fingerprint reader you can use instead of entering a password when signing in. And, it works! I was skeptical about this feature at first, but found that lightly sliding my forefinger over the reader logged me in every time without a hitch

Ports (Expandability)

Four USB ports are positioned around the sides and rear of the unit: 1 USB 2.0 port for backwards compatibility and 3 USB 3.0 ports, one of which can be used as a charging port that always has power available to charge your other devices, even when the machine is turned off. This came in handy during a recent business trip when I had my iPad’s cable but forgot to bring along the AC charging plug.

The sides of the workstation also include an SD memory card reader, one port that accepts a composite headphone-out/microphone-in cable, an optical drive that plays Blu-Ray DVD’s and plays and records to standard DVD’s and CD’s, a VGA monitor input jack, a DisplayPort, and a Thunderbolt I/O that greatly increases data transfer performance with bi-directional 10 Gbps speed. (There is no HDMI port. However, I learned that if you want to display HD video on your TV, the HP “DisplayPort to HDMI Adapter” is available as an inexpensive accessory.)

Flip the unit over and you’ll find a docking connector, flush-mounted with the surface that gives you the option to expand your possibilities by powering external displays or other devices.

My evaluation unit came with 16GB of system RAM and 500 GB of hard drive storage that’s paired with a 32 GB MLC mSATA module with intel SRT (Smart Response Technology) for quick boot and file access.

I particularly liked the ability to open the back panel with just a flip of a lever to quickly upgrade system RAM to 32GB, and upgrade storage to a whopping 1.87TB with no tools needed. The modular design with green touch-points allows for tool-less removal and replacement of most common modules making upgrades and maintenance a snap.

The Optional DreamColor Display


The DreamColor Display in Animation

The evaluation unit came equipped with an integrated DreamColor display. The DreamColor display was introduced a few years ago on the DreamWorks Animation campus where it collaboratively got its birth by providing exceptional color accuracy across their entire studio. One feature set that I took special note of are its six built-in and selectable color calibration modes: sRGB, Rec. 709, Rec. 601, Adobe® RGB, DCI-P3 emulation, and full gamut. There’s also one user programmable mode that lets you customize your unique color look and feel across an entire enterprise.

You initiate the DreamColor control panel by entering “HP Mobile Display Assistant” into the Start menu search field. This wasn’t immediately obvious or explained, and to get there faster I pasted a shortcut icon to this program into the task bar.

Subjective Testing

To experience this machine as it was intended, I began my evaluation by using the mobile workstation in my every day work by taking it with me daily to and from my office, and then on an out-of-town business trip. The ZBook15 is ISV certified to perform with virtually all engineering software and I loaded in and worked with Autodesk Maya 2014, the full Adobe creative suite, and Avid’s Pinnacle video software during my evaluation.

I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly the unit booted up – it took just 15 seconds to boot from a cold start to the login screen and only 3 seconds to the desktop after swiping my finger. I also clocked boot times for my applications – Autodesk Maya 2014 fully launched in 4 seconds, Adobe Photoshop in 3, and Avid’s Pinnacle video editing software in just 7 seconds.

I fully exercised each of these applications creating and rendering complex models and scenes with Autodesk Maya and doing full video editing and rendering with both Adobe Premiere and Avid Pinnacle. The renderings appeared to fly by and when operating in these applications all actions occurred almost instantly.

Working in this responsive environment was a breath of fresh air and allowed me to get to work fast without impatiently drumming my fingers waiting for the next screen to appear.

I clocked the battery life at an even 2 hours while running the very compute intensive SPECapc Maya 12 Benchmark Test and was told that on my unit battery life was diminished by at least half with the DreamColor display installed. The HP spec claims 14 hours of battery life, but this is without DreamColor, and measured when the computer is idled.

Objective Testing

To objectively gauge how well the ZBook 15 performs I ran two benchmarks, NovaBench (geared more toward overall performance) and SPECapc Maya 12 (geared more toward graphics performance).

NovaBench Benchmark Test

16156 MB System RAM (Score: 238)
– RAM Speed: 12318 MB/s
CPU Tests (Score: 648)
– Floating Point Operations/Second: 203,939,208
– Integer Operations/Second: 678,708,632
– MD5 Hashes Generated/Second: 946,661
Graphics Tests (Score: 260)
– 3D Frames Per Second: 754
Hardware Tests (Score: 44)
– Primary Partition Capacity: 450 GB
– Drive Write Speed: 143 MB/s

Total NovaBench Composite Score: 1,190

The ZBook 15 scored well above average. 41,004 NovaBench workstation benchmark tests were performed over the past 3 months and the average composite score for these was 864 compared to the ZBook 15’s score of 1,190.

SPECapc Maya 12 Benchmark Test
I chose to run the Maya test because of its many complex and compute-intensive operations. This comprehensive test puts Maya through its paces by evaluating four Maya projects (.ma) from wireframes, to texturing, shading and mentalRay rendering. It also measures time expended while doing physics calculations for liquid, smoke, cloth, streamers, hair and deformations. It runs each of these tests four times and calculates and displays all of the details and a composite score of the test results. The composite score for the SPECapc Maya 12 benchmark I ran on the ZBook 15 was: GFX – 272 and CPU – 347 putting it on a par or faster than the majority of the newer workstations we’ve tested recently.

Final Thoughts
With its slick ergonomic design, extreme power and build quality the Zbook 15 is ideally positioned to meet the needs of today’s crunch-time world where computational horsepower and mobility can be game changers. Its starting point price of $1,699 makes it competitive with desktop workstations and well within reach of its intended professional audience.
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HP ZBook 15 Mobile Workstation

Pros: Ergonomic and attractive design; excellent price/performance ratio; build quality; connectivity options; configurability; easy expansion; ruggedness and reliability.

Cons: None significant, especially noteworthy since this is one of three new ZBooks just released.
Price (As configured for review): $2,999. Prices start at $1,699
Final Grade: A

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

For More Information about the HP ZBook 15 mobile workstation: http://www8.hp.com/us/en/campaigns/workstations/zbook-15.html


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