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Serious Animation: Applications Outside Entertainment

Christopher Harz chronicles the many uses of 3D animation that have cropped up in several leading industries.

Bluerock Technology has created Flight Studio, a rosetta stone for animations created in OpenFlight. All Turbo Squid images © Turbo squid Inc.

Bluerock Technology has created Flight Studio, a rosetta stone for animations created in OpenFlight. All Turbo Squid images © Turbo squid Inc.

When we think of 3D animation, the first thought that comes to mind is often entertainment, especially film and TV vfx and videogames. While it's true that much of the cutting edge development in 3D CGI comes from entertainment, it is also true that animation is now cropping up everywhere along with new business and job opportunities. (By "animation," I mean any skills related to the creation of CGI, such as modeling, motion capture, animating, audio, programming and the production/direction of animated sequences.)

One such area is legal or forensic animation, which can either help investigators research how someone got hurt or aid attorneys in convincing a jury of their client's innocence. Forensic animation is becoming so popular that many courts now have had to create a brand new job position, that of court animation expert someone qualified to check out the veracity of the animation being presented in court, to make sure some lawyer isn't using CGI to slant the truth in a particular direction.

Closely related to forensic animation is medical CGI in fact, the two often go hand in hand, and much of the pioneering work in high-resolution visualization and imaging came from this field. One of the first companies that worked in legal and medical animation was Engineering Applications Inc. (EAI), which created colorful 3D databases and "fly-through" tools with its virtual human program. EAI has since been acquired by UGS (www.ugs.com), a huge global company that offers advanced imaging for design and manufacturing applications for worldwide customers. A growing medical application of 3D is telemedicine, which enables a surgeon to work on patients that may be thousands of miles away. The U.S. Army is especially interested in this area, since it has an ongoing need for crisis surgery procedures that require the skills of specialists that are much more likely to be found at Johns Hopkins than in the mountains of Afghanistan.

An unusual medical application for animation is gaming to train surgeons in hand-eye coordination. Dr. James Rosser of Beth Israel Medical Center recently demonstrated that surgeons who practice with videogames at least three hours a week made about 37% fewer mistakes in laparoscopic surgery, and performed their tasks 27% faster than surgeons who were not gamers. This led Dr. Rosser to create a game called Top Gun, which surgeons use to warm up their coordination skills before entering the O.R.

Another growth field for 3D CGI is biochemistry, where companies such as Biogen design new medicines by using highly detailed 3D modeling, often with stereo 3D displays to enable researchers to differentiate complex molecular structures. This area is a priority application for advanced 3D visualization, according to Kodak, which is developing a new passive display system that allows people to view 3D effects without needing to wear special glasses or headgear, called the Stereoscopic Imaging Display. Kodak, long associated with conventional photographic film, is making a major push to reinvent itself as a provider of advanced digital imaging technology.

Flight Studio Hierarchy Browser and Attribute Editor. All Bluerock images © 2004 Bluerock Technologies LLC.

Flight Studio Hierarchy Browser and Attribute Editor. All Bluerock images © 2004 Bluerock Technologies LLC.

Advanced imaging and visualization can make a huge difference in many commercial design and production processes. Panoram Technologies of California (www.panoramtech.com) is a leader in this process, which uses clever 3D animation and advanced displays to make overwhelming masses of data meaningful to customers ranging from oil companies to construction teams. Panoram's Belgian-based partner VRcontext produces a simulation software package called Walkinside (www.walkinside.com), which allows a user to "walk though" a space such as an underground oil field or the design for an offshore drilling platform. The camera view is at the eye level of an avatar that can be moved throughout the space by moving the equivalent of a human, the user gets a realistic feeling of the space, being blocked by walls or small openings, having to climb up ladders and getting a feeling of the scale factor within a detailed (over 100 million polys) environment. Theo Mayer, Panoram's founder and ceo, notes that, "For oil and gas operators, being able see a plant in 3D space from a human perspective makes it perfect for collaborative planning and design reviews, with dramatic returns on investment."

Flight Studio Hierarchy Browser and Switch Editor.

Flight Studio Hierarchy Browser and Switch Editor.

One field that has had a disappointing growth in CGI applications is education. Whereas there is a huge demand for animated content by many sources by universities (especially for online classes), by large companies for in-house training for managers and sales forces, by many thousands of businessmen for marketing presentations, by the K12 industry for graphic illustrations of math and science courses the amount of actual animated courseware is still small, and is mostly limited to Flash presentations or research-oriented 3D virtual environments with limited applications, a sad state in a field whose budgets total tens of billions of dollars. At this year's mecca for training and online learning, the Training 2004 Conference in Atlanta (www.trainingconference.com), I interviewed many suppliers and consumers of courseware, and heard the same theme many times over. Suppliers would complain that, "Educators want animated courseware, but are not willing to pay for it!" To complete the vicious circle, courseware buyers would counter with, "We'd pay for it if we could see what we were getting and what kind of ROI that would achieve." It appears that this field is ripe for a company that can do two things: a) achieve better communication between educators/presenters and animation professionals, to align what is really needed with what can realistically be done; and, b) create lower-cost animated courseware, perhaps with the use of off-the-shelf models and movements from companies such as Turbo Squid, to gain the type of production efficiencies that Bill Hanna and Joe Barbara achieved with their "limited animation" in the 1960s (which overnight enabled animation to be made on TV budgets and schedules).

One field that typifies the growth in demand for "Hollywood type" animation is architecture. In the past, architectural clients were content to view drawings of empty rooms created in a traditional CAD package such as AutoCad or Cadia every six months or so, but now they want to see those same rooms filled with objects and furniture and be able to change the layout, colors and even design features, something that can only be done with entertainment-type animation packages such as 3ds max or Maya.

Flight Studio bridges the film, video and games communities with the GIS and military world.

Flight Studio bridges the film, video and games communities with the GIS and military world.

Probably the area least understood by the entertainment world is CGI created for U.S. government programs. Many animators are vaguely aware that 3D animation and online gaming were originally created for the military, but are unaware of how large the government animation workforce really is. To compound the problem, most entertainment animators live on the west coast, from San Diego to Vancouver, while animators working for the government and its contractors tend to the east coast, especially northern Florida. Let's examine some of the details.

The largest epicenter for military animation (which is termed the "modeling, simulation and training" industry) in the world is in Orlando, Florida, where the simulation offices of both the U.S. Army (Program Executive Officer, Simulation Training and Instrumentation, or PEO STRI, at www.peostri.army.mil) and the Navy (NAVAIR Training Systems Division, at www.ntsc.navy.mil) are housed in a complex next to the University of Central Florida (the Air Force has a number of simulation centers elsewhere across the U.S.). These two centers award well over $1 billion per year in simulation contracts, which supports some 102 companies and more than 16,000 jobs in the immediate area. Additional companies and jobs stretch out in a technology corridor that extends to Tampa. Graduates from the University of Central Florida with simulation expertise can sometimes almost literally walk across the street to get jobs either with the government or with the many contractors that ring the area.

The gap between Orlando and Hollywood is immense. Entertainment animators would probably never think of applying for jobs at CAE, Northrop Grumman, DigitalGlobe, Lockheed Martin or AAI, yet these employ animators in much greater numbers than do the better known animation houses such as Digital Domain or ILM. Government animators usually do not attend E3 or SIGGRAPH they have their own huge trade show, the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference, or IITSEC (www.iitsec.org), which is usually held in Orlando, and is similar in size and content to the E3 (although, regrettably, there are no booth babes or brightly costumed characters). European animators have a similar show, called ITEC (at www.itec.co.uk), which will be held in Amsterdam next year. You will see few of the same faces or companies at these shows, other than sgi, which has always had a strong presence in both camps, and derives a very significant part of its revenues from government work.

Why the gap between government and entertainment animation professionals? Some of it is historical. Military simulation started way back in the 1960s with aircraft simulators, which went to great lengths to produce 3D environments with realtime motion. These simulators cost a small fortune ($40 million or so each, more than the aircraft they simulated) because the Air Force insisted on realistic controls and realtime motion, no matter what the cost. Companies such as Evans & Sutherland provided the highly specialized hardware for this. Hollywood, on the other hand, was always willing to compromise in the interest of costs or time if a full-resolution 3D gaming effect could not be achieved in realtime, a little darkness and rain could always hide a few flaws, for instance. It was not until SIMNET and similar systems came along in the late 1980s that military simulators finally started using COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) components to save costs, taking advantage of the economies of scale produced by the gaming industry, which caused graphics boards to be produced for hundreds, rather than hundreds of thousands, of dollars.

Bluerocks Flight Studio offers OpenFlight artists an efficient pipeline into Discreets 3ds max software.

Bluerocks Flight Studio offers OpenFlight artists an efficient pipeline into Discreets 3ds max software.

Software toolsets have been another problem. Whereas entertainment animators have been using readily available toolsets such as 3ds max, Softimage and Maya (which allow a great deal of interchange and porting between them), military animation was dominantly in OpenFlight, a format created by MultiGen (now MultiGen Paradigm, at www.multigen-paradigm.com). OpenFlight files have a lot going for them they can be very precise, and are oriented to faithfully following terrain from real-life GIS (Geographic Information Systems); they were thus ideal for the requirements of the military community and other very demanding customers. In addition to being used to create innumerable tanks, aircraft and cities for military simulations, for instance, MultiGen-Paradigm's CreatorPro modeling software was recently used by the Israel Antiquities Authority to create a stunning 3D recreation of the city of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago that visitors can "walk" through. But no one was able to port MultiGen files into the formats used by the entertainment community, at least not without risking catastrophic loss of detail and textures. This held true until recently, when Bluerock Technologies developed Flight Studio, a complete set of OpenFlight importing, editing and exporting tools for the 3ds max 6 toolset.

"OpenFlight artists now have an efficient pipeline into Discreet's 3ds max software with Flight Studio," said Brian Blau, the ceo of Bluerock Technologies. Flight Studio can be bought from Turbo Squid (www.turbosquid.com), as can thousands of royalty-free 3D models and animations created in OpenFlight. This creation of Flight Studio as a rosetta stone that can translate freely between two distant communities could have profound effects on both. That could be opportune for all concerned. The military community is world-class at building terrain that looks like and corresponds to real-world geography, and creating high-res models of vehicles such as tanks and helicopters that can be precise within inches, but it is relatively poor at creating stories, emotions and people, or simulations that fit on small screens (of the type that foot soldiers in the field are likely to have). The entertainment community is great at generating animated content, emotions and people, but has not generally used realistic terrain (with a few exceptions such as Grand Theft Auto) or built hyper-realistic models. The opportunity now exists for the communities to share their skill sets and the many hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of models, content and databases that they have already created.

"We're excited about the potential that Flight Studio brings to the 3D world. Flight Studio opens the door for the film, video and games community to interact with the GIS and Military community. For the first time these worlds can share 3D creations efficiently to take advantage of each other's talents," notes Dan Lion, vp of sales & marketing for Turbo Squid.

In short, there's a lot of potential out there, as 3D toolsets get easier to use and the many different communities of practice such as medical, forensic, entertainment, design, imaging, gaming, education and simulation draw closer together in their animation requirements and approaches. Animation experts that have experience in more than one of these fields are still relatively rare, and command premium salaries and positions in companies that span several disciplines. The best opportunities these days may arise for animators curious enough to step outside of what's familiar, and network, network, network.

Christopher Harz is an executive consultant for new media. He has produced video games for films such as Spawn, The Fifth Element, Titanic and Lost in Space. As Perceptronics svp of program development, Harz helped build the first massively multiplayer online game worlds, including the $240 million 3-D SIMNET. He worked on C3I, combat robots and war gaming at the RAND Corp., the military think tank.

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