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Raising the rendering roof: Win bids with visualization

Advances in interactive rendering technology have expanded the design possibilities for architects and their clients. Seeing the results of even subtle changes in an instant gives them the freedom to explore many more options to create that perfect design.

For most non-architects, it is hard to visualize what a building will look like from elevations and floor plans alone, which can make it difficult to sell ideas to clients. Traditionally, architects have gotten around this problem by creating intricate scale models and artists' impressions of what a finished building might look like. These days, however, architects are relying more and more on digital representations of their final design. A fully rendered image makes it easier to communicate the architect's vision and can really bring a project to life, transforming ideas into reality and generating enthusiasm from the client.

Over the last 20 years computer-aided design has evolved from simple 2-D drafting to sophisticated 3-D modelling. One of the advantages of 3-D modelling is the ability to reuse 3-D data from 3-D CAD models to create photorealistic visualizations, architectural walkthroughs and fly-by animations. These digital representations use real-world textures, materials and lighting, showing clients what a building will look like, from inside and out, at different times of the day and from different angles. They make it possible to make design-related decisions long before a building is actually built and they can be used for presentations and repurposed as marketing and sales collateral. Bids are won and lost on the quality of these images and clients have come to expect high-quality renders; it is easy to understand why visualization has become such an important part of the workflow within architectural firms.


The way 3-D artists and visualization specialists go about creating architectural visualizations is a time-consuming business involving sophisticated 3-D modelling and ray-tracing software. Rendering even a simple scene can take time because it involves calculating the effect of every ray of light within the image. Even with advances in computer processing technology, complex architectural scenes can take hours to render. Any change to the image means starting the entire rendering calculation again, a repetitive and time-consuming process that eats into project timelines and can tie up computing resources for days.

Ask any 3-D artist what the biggest cause of frustration and inefficiency in their workflow is and they are likely to cite rendering speed as their top pain issue. The market's response to this has been to find ways to speed up the rendering process, drawing on processing resources beyond the central processing unit including the graphics processing unit. This is a logical development. Ray-trace rendering is processer-hungry and it makes sense to utilize whatever resources are available, but is faster ray-tracing really enough in today's production environment? At ArtVPS, Cambridge, England, we believe the real gains lie not just in speeding up a time-consuming process, but in changing the process itself: freeing the artist from the tedium of the render-change-repeat workflow and giving them more time to be creative. This is why we developed Shaderlight, an advanced rendering plug-in for San Rafael, Calif.-based Autodesk's 3ds Max modelling software that takes rendering to the next level.

Shaderlight delivers significant productivity and creativity enhancements over traditional ray-trace rendering engines. It renders intelligent pixels that understand where they fit in a 3-D image-and what to do if something changes. This enables users to change key attributes of a full-resolution image at any stage of the rendering process without ever having to re-render. When changes are made to materials, environments, lights or textures, the information embedded in each pixel is used to update the image without the need to re-render. We call these MELT changes and this approach dramatically improves efficiency and project turnaround. Users are not only able to see the progressive refinement of a scene when objects or camera angles are altered, but can also make interactive changes to the MELT elements on full quality rendered images.


Additionally, a new approach to global illumination-the specific algorithms that add more realistic lighting to 3-D scenes-enables light colour and intensity to be updated on screen without the need to re-render. From a workflow perspective, the user is always working with a fully rendered image.

Shaderlight stands to fundamentally change the way 3-D artists go about generating images. Its simple tools and interactive workflow mean you no longer have to be a rendering expert to create great visualisations for a client.

Imagine being able to sit with a client and show them how different lighting situations or a change of material will play out in a building design. By making the process of rendering images interactive, Shaderlight improves the workflow of architects and architectural visualizers, allowing them to make changes and see the results without restarting the render. Rather than factoring in time for rendering final images, 3-D artists can use all their time creating the kind of high-quality visualizations that win bids. For architects working in the current economic climate, the time and cost savings that this new approach can bring are invaluable in terms of improving efficiency and project turnaround.

Michael Lawson is the chief technology officer at ArtVPS, Cambridge, England. For more information, go to