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Autodesk & Softimage Talk Quantum of Convergence

VFXWorld goes deeper into Autodesk's surprising acquisition of 3D rival Softimage with Autodesk Media & Ent. SVP Marc Petit and Softimage General Manager Marc Stevens.

Bill Desowitz: So, now that we're still digesting this surprising news, let's begin with how this acquisition came about.

Marc Stevens: As you know, at the beginning of the year, Avid's new executive team came on board and they obviously looked at a new strategic direction for the company, doing their analysis about the markets that they want to be in. Clearly, they made a decision about focusing on their core video editing and audio markets, and while I think they saw the 3D market as a good opportunity and had a lot of respect for the products that we are doing and the talent and the team, we reached a mutual conclusion that without the right focus and putting everything that's needed behind what we have, that we really wouldn't reach the full potential with the assets that we have. And if you look at the industry and what's going on: Adobe, or Intel or NVIDIA or Microsoft or Google all making big investments in 3D, that we realized that it would be better served for Softimage and Avid to find the right home for it so it could really prosper moving forward.

So that kicked off a process that Avid went through, which was very extensive, talking to a significant number of people over an extended period of time. And that really late in the process, Marc and I had a chance to talk about where the market is evolving and where the challenges and opportunities were, and we realized that we shared a lot of common ground. As we progressed in our discussions, we realized that we were also working on very complementary things strategically and that moving forward, working together, we could bring better solutions to the customers faster than each going at it independently.

Marc Petit: Let me elaborate on our shared vision, which is the realization that the 3D market is going through a lot of transformations. And those transformations have to do with interactive 3D and run-time technologies because they are completely changing the game. And not only the gaming industry but also in film, which is using previsualization and realtime game technology, and in design visualization, where people want to experience their design with the quality of a game console. And we believe with the progress and the promise of the hardware of tomorrow, the online 3D experience will be similar to what we have today with game consoles. Also, it means a lot for entertainment, for the online shopping experience, the design experience. The designing of cars should be like Gran Turismo: attractive, immersive, photorealistic, realtime visualization and simulation. So Marc and I realized we had this shared vision but were attacking the problems from two different angles and we had a lot of complementary aspects.

We know this announcement created a little bit of a shock because when you take a pure asset creation approach, effectively between our products, the vast majority of assets for game companies and film companies belong to our two systems. But there are far bigger challenges than asset creation, and it's a green field out there. And that's our motivation.

BD: So let's discuss the roadmap you are going to now develop together.

MP: I think there are two angles: One is being able to offer production teams end-to-end solutions and we know that people have strong emotional ties with their products. We want to allow the base to choose with passion, which we experienced with Maya and Max, and we're going to keep doing it with Maya, Max and XSI. And also we will sharpen our focus on interoperability so production teams can work efficiently together even though they aren't using the same tools. And that's a reality of today's production process. People use a ton of tools -- in-house tools, tools from particular vendors -- and technologies like FBX are starting to have a proven track record of helping build productive hybrid environments. So we're committed to choice and interoperability in the short-term. Softimage customers can have the value of more products, and Face Robot can be made available more widely to the installed bases.

And there is this other aspect, which is tools for offering interactive 3D. Remember when we announced the Kynogon acquisition a while back getting ourselves the AI technology, working on our own character animation technology, and Marc and his team with ICE are working on their own very complementary character animation technology, so we think we can get very quickly innovate interactive characters and environments in that domain. And those are as relevant in film and design visualization as they are in gaming. And we believe that our combined teams would really crack intelligent characters.

Marc Petit.

BD: So, for instance, Face Robot could be very complementary to what Mudbox offers?

MP: That's a great example, even though we cannot comment on that. There's also a lot of HumanIK stuff when you look at ICE, from a run-time and interactive 3D perspective, there is a lot of complementary aspects there.

MS: What we're really trying to do is bridge the gap between the run-time world and the asset creation world and allow a lot more stuff to be done interactively, get more into the game authoring side of things. If you look at game making, the portion of the pipeline that DCC takes up is a very small piece. We just feel we have so much technology and talent that we can bring better solutions doing this type of authoring in an interactive world.

BD: And talk about working together in stereoscopic 3-D production.

MS: For us it's been a question of priorities, and I think what will be interesting, now that it ties into a whole bigger pipeline workflow that Autodesk has obviously been working on, is it's going to be a much more compelling thing for us to get that stuff in there.

BD: Talk about working together in future development of your products.

MP: What some people don't realize is how much common history both teams have together here in Montreal. Just because of proximity, we'll see much faster integration and much more synergy. We know people don't like to change their tools and how attached they are to them. They are also attached to who owns their tools, as we witnessed with the Alias acquisition. It's one of the characteristics of this market. With this and by having the teams working more closely together and by having the products under one roof, we can really bring a lot of the best from each product to other products.

MS: By focusing on a really datacentric pipeline, you're not going to force people to make choices anymore but allow them to more easily bring in one product that they want to use. Even if they're a Max or a Maya user, they're going to see how XSI does something really well.

BD: Can you talk more about where your focus will be in terms of interactive entertainment?

Marc Stevens.

MP: Initially we'll be focused on characters because this is where a lot of the complexities are in conveying emotion realistically and managing tons of characters. You'll see a lot of focus on character-centric interactive solutions. And we know what the problem is: it requires tight integration of animation, AI and physics. We think of it as the holy trinity of the run-time components. And that's where we see this whole agenda and investment accelerate. I think when we can give the industry good, intelligent character solutions, it will open the door to a lot of new applications. And I think there is a race going on now across several big companies to make this happen.

MS: I think Marc is spot-on. You're trying to make a more holistic process across the whole pipeline. Right now people go from one tool to change things into a format that another tool can swallow [and so on] to eventually down to a format that can run in run-time. And I think what we want to do is to be able to go further along in the process with the kind of rich creation tools that we have in giving people a lot of that interactive experience and saving all the nitty-gritty optimization until the very end.

BD: What can you say about staffing plans at this point?

MP: These are the early days of integration and this acquisition is no different from any other one. There are going to be some redundancies in the process but, as I said, I think our strategy is clear about offering choice and interoperability on one end and breaking new ground in interactive 3D on the other. And I would expect that the way we are going to approach the organization is going to be fully aligned with this strategy. Again, not everything has been figured out.

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.com.