3D Asset Production with Real-Time Rendering

The flexibility of game development engines like Unity and the exponential increases in GPU throughput (thank you cryptocurrency miners!) represent a revolution in 3D art and animation for manufacturing and other engineering-led industries. Mature product companies design, develop and manufacture their products using CAD/CAM engineering software. CAD/CAM, or Computer Aided Design/Computer Aided Manufacturing precisely renders product designs within the strict confines of engineering data sets.

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When these data sets – representing a complete digital blueprint of a product – are combined with modern manufacturing techniques, it dramatically reduces the cycle time between design and manufacturing. Unfortunately, using those models for print, website, animation or even augmented reality/virtual reality via a traditional pre-rendering based production process is complicated, time consuming , and expensive. This process can be so arduous that many will create new, customer-facing 3D models from scratch – sacrificing accuracy and efficiency that should be derived from the original engineering data.

Due to their intricate detail, the 3D assets are typically very large files with massive  polygon counts (oftentimes in the millions, which is impractical and not necessary for real time engine use). In standard practice, files are translated into 3D geometry models useful for print and digital via a lengthy rendering process. But given the size, it can take a significant time and manual labor to translate for their final intended purposes. Rather than investing in modification and rendering each time we need to create a new asset, we can lower the polygon count and texture models in order to allow a real-time environment like Unity to quickly generate specific views, animations, or even interactive 3D experiences.

To get the CAD models to a point in which they are optimized for correct display, you need to reduce the polygon count. This process at times can produce anomalies that cause  issues with the integrity of surface quality (see below pictures as examples), but can be solved by creating normal maps using the original high poly model as reference. When you apply these normal maps to the low poly model, the surface quality of the models will render  correctly – despite not being the same polygonal count. If downsampling is well managed and performed by a skilled artist, the visual fidelity can match and potentially exceed the traditional production quality at a tiny fraction of the time.

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This drives the cost of high quality 3D work down, bringing the capability to deliver 3D content and immersive experiences  to companies and product lines that couldn’t previously justify the investment. And leveraging the CAD data as a starting point for real-time rendering via game engines, we net an increased level of accuracy and fidelity that does not compromise the original intent of the object.

With translation complete the result is a versatile, accurate 3D geometric model. Surface materials are applied to the geometry that allow plastics to look like plastics and metals to behave as metals. Lighting, camera placement and an entire range of other artistic decisions provide complete visual control of imagery or animation – all in real-time. This allows artists and designers to experiment with immediate feedback  – creating deliverables for multiple end applications with efficiency.

How-To: Make an AR Birthday Card

Last year I started making digital birthday cards for my niece.  As she lives far away, these cards are a way I can share with her what I do for a living given that I only get to see her once a year at most.  

I start the process by asking her mother what she is into this year, i.e. pop culture, animals, etc.  Last year she was really into triceratops, so I took an old dinosaur model that I made years beforehand for an unrealized project and made an animation of it leaping out of an opening box.  At the time, I was freelancing so I had time to make it more elaborate.  

This year, her favorite thing is the pangolin, which is an armadillo like creature featured in a meme she likes.
pangolin meme
I was limited by time this year and since this was something I wanted to animate and run via the older model phone my brother in law has, I knew I had to make an animation of my own as quickly and ergonomically as possible.

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First, I started by saving a lot of various pangolin pictures off google images for reference. Then, I modeled a very basic low poly model pangolin in Silo.   

media-20171211 (1)From there I imported the model into Zbrush.  I was quickly able to add scales and some minor details to the creature.   

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I then took the high poly model and the low poly model and brought it into Substance Painter 2018 to shoot the normal maps so I could work on the textures.   

When I brought the pangolin into Maya I initially thought I could use Maya’s Quickrig function to give the creature bones, but that I realized that I would have to repose the model in a way for the application  to detect the limbs, so I reposed the creature. However, Maya’s Quickrig ultimately didn’t work the way I wanted it to, so I ended up making my own skeleton for the creature.  

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Since I am using Vuforia for this AR project, I  needed a marker for the camera to detect when to start playing the animation.  I decided to make the marker a simple rock that my brother in law could print out and hang on the wall.  I took an old rock that I made for another unrealized project and started animating the pangolin with that in mind.  

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The pangolin peeks out behind the rock and then musters up the courage to waddle it’s way around the rock, sheepishly waving at the viewer.  It was a very quick and simple project for me to complete and my niece really liked it –  so I won some awesome uncle points.  🙂