State of the art

Shaderlight software could transform the way 3D artists edit rendered images, allowing them to make on-screen changes in real time. Charles Clarke reports

Very occasionally, a piece of software comes along that completely changes the way a process is performed. Shaderlight, the latest rendering tool from ArtVPS, may prove to be one of those products.

Shaderlight changes the way 3D artists generate and edit high-quality rendered images. Traditionally, making changes to a rendered image involved a long wait while the image completely re-rendered from scratch.

Shaderlight is a physically based progressive ray-tracer that enables interactive changes to be made to materials, environments, lighting and textures (the key MELT attributes) at any stage in the rendering process. 3D artists can make changes on screen to a fully rendered image and see the results in real time without compromising image quality or restarting the render. Even while the image is rendering, the user can fine tune it, making MELT changes until the result is perfect.

The software is a plug-in rendering engine to 3ds Max, the 3D modelling, animation and rendering system from Autodesk for the game, film, television, web, multi-media and marketing communication industries.

Material parameters for 3ds Max or Shaderlight’s own Art Professional materials can be adjusted on the fly to fine tune or completely alter the look of a final image. HDR (High Dynamic Range) environments, scenes or backplates can be replaced, updated and enhanced for a dramatic change of atmosphere and only those pixels affected by the change are re-computed.

Lighting intensity, colour and position can be refined to achieve greater realism, with shadows and global illumination updating interactively. Texture maps and settings within scenes can be applied or adjusted over and over again until the perfect finish is obtained.

With conventional renderers, a change in any one of these parameters would require a complete re-render of the image. With Shaderlight, these parameters can all be changed at once and only the parts of the image affected will be re-rendered. This interactive modification capability can dramatically improve the production pipeline and throughput for any 3D artist working in architecture, product design or visualisation.

Shaderlight works by maintaining the relationship between the colour of the rendered pixel and the elements of the 3D scene that contribute to that pixel. When changes are made to any of the MELT elements, the software uses the information embedded in the intelligent pixels to update the image without the need to re-render.

Shaderlight effectively removes the bottleneck in the linear render/change/re-render process. With Shaderlight’s non-linear workflow, artists, designers and animators need not be constrained by the time-consuming and inefficient rendering processes that eat into project deadlines and stifle creativity. ‘Having to tweak hundreds of settings when working on a project wastes time and eats into project deadlines, so the idea of rendering intelligent pixels really appeals,’ said Neil Evans of e3D interactive. ‘Shaderlight will save me hours of rendering time and my partners love the way I can change textures or materials without having to re-render. Seeing the results of these changes in an instant gives us the freedom to explore more options to create the perfect design.’
The biggest advantage of Shaderlight benefits people that don’t want to be graphic specialists but that require relatively sophisticated rendered images: people such as product designers, design engineers, or architects. These professionals are more interested in the output product than the image or the image-generation exercise. The image is just a means to an end, so speeding up image creation is an important criterion.
Shaderlight has not only accelerated the process but has actually made it easier to use. Although it started with a 3ds Max plug-in, ArtVPS expects to move into areas where the subject or product is more important than the image.

Because Shaderlight uses intelligent pixels that are aware of the characteristics of their surroundings and the neighbouring pixels, it is possible to up-sample, super-sample or enhance rendered images – in effect, introduce finer-grained pixels where there were coarse-grained pixels before. This brings to life the kind of miracles seen in television forensic shows. Previously it was not possible to up-sample an image and put pixels where pixels didn’t exist before, but having the ability to map pixels to their surrounding pixels lets the user improve the resolution of existing or generated images.

‘For us the image is never really finished,’ said Michael Lawson, chief technology officer at ArtVPS. ‘You can specify a finished quality, but once you have got to that point there is the potential to increase the quality – this has tremendous implications on all sorts of graphics art applications.’

Shaderlight could also be interesting to general-purpose imaging companies such as Adobe, which could find this technology useful for products such as Photoshop, where improving image quality is virtually impossible.

Design essentials
The key facts to take away from this article

  • Shaderlight is a plug-in rendering engine for Autodesk’s 3ds Max
  • Changes can be made to the key MELT attributes at any stage in the rendering process
  • Lighting intensity, colour and position can be refined for realism
  • Users can add pixels to up-sampled images

What’s new rendering software

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Out of the shadows
The Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire 5.0 Advanced Rendering Extension (ARX) now includes the Mental Images rendering engine for unsurpassed realism. It lets the user create stunning images and assembly animations using enhanced real-time photorealistic rendering. Support for shadows and reflections, perspective views and exploded-state animations allows users to show products in the best light possible.

Seeing the lightworks
Lightworks, which supplies rendering solutions form developers of advanced 3D computer graphics software, exhibited a range of products at this year’s SIGGRAPH Asia Computer Graphics Exhibition in Yokohama, Japan. The next release of Lightworks Author (8.2) includes: Lightworks Real-Time Ray Tracing, a new rendering option with enhanced workflow; Screen Space Ambient Occlusion, which enables the creation of more subtle shadows in real-time; and a new Reflection Catcher, which captures a reflection and associates this with a model when added to a backplate. Meanwhile, the latest version of Lightworks Artisan provides focused rendering solutions that can be simply integrated into OEM tools. The product offers users pre-configured workflows and allows the use of ‘drag, drop and render’ styles, simplifying the image-creation process.

Aesthetica pleasing
Icona Solutions recently dAestheticaemonstrated the latest version of its perceived quality simulation and visualisation software, aesthetica V3.1. The software is used by automotive industry OEMs to improve the perceived quality of their vehicles while reducing development time scales and costs. Unlike other visualisation software products, aesthetica applies information on manufacturing variations and assembly deformation directly to the 3D CAD model of a vehicle. This enables real time ‘what you see is what you get’ perceived quality studies, using realistic imagery, from the early stages of the vehicle development process through to production.

Image takes flight
Mental Images and the National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) at Wichita State University have opened the RealityServer Development and Demonstration Center. This allows engineers and manufacturers in the aerospace and defence industries to use the NVIDIA RealityServer rendering platform to review, interact with and design 3D web-based applications that enable detailed 3D imagery of aircraft designs to be rendered. Visitors to the RealityServer Center can view 3D depictions of an aircraft, from a bird’s eye view of its body to the core components of its engine. The NVIDIA RealityServer platform creates real-time images, allowing multiple users to interact with and change the viewpoint and content. For engineers that want to compare design options, the NVIDIA RealityServer platform lets them change parts, resize components, add colours and surface effects, or view exterior and interior configurations, utilising Mental Images’ interactive photo-realistic ray-tracing technology.