Thursday, March 27, 2008

Reach for the stars: the story that never was

Reach for the stars
In 2002, I was invited by Chris Cason, the leader of the POV-Ray development team, to work on a very special project: the creation of a computer-generated image that would be rendered on board of the International Space Station. With fellow POV-Ray artist Jaime Vives Piqueres, we designed the image according to a drastic set of specifications, then the image script and 3D models were sent to internet entrepreneur and astronaut Mark Shuttleworth (who would create the Ubuntu Linux distribution two years later) who loaded it on a laptop, turned it into a big-size image while floating in zero-gravity, and came back to Earth. The entire story is told here and there's not much more to say about the image itself.

The strangest thing, however, is that we completely failed to make that story interesting to other people. We naively believed that the concept of two (unknown) geeks managing to smuggle artwork on the ISS thanks to a "space tourist" was, if not newsworthy, at least cool enough for people to notice it, particularly in the computer graphics and open source communities. The simple fact that Chris Cason had to modify POV-Ray to accommodate zero-gravity was an interesting tidbit: how many popular software, let alone open source popular software, include special code to go to space. And of course this image remains the first one rendered in orbit.

Some folks did like the story: Zazzle, the poster company, created a special page for it. There's a page about the image in the Polish Wikipedia and once in a while a teacher wants to use the image for a school project. But otherwise, the story was lost in the flow. We submitted it several times to Slashdot, the popular "news for nerds" website that caters to open source enthusiasts, to no avail. DAZ, the company that had created the child model used in the picture, turned us down because they believed that our story was critical of the model (it wasn't). I posted it to a forum dedicated to space flight and astronomy news: no answer. I wrote to people who had a special interest in space-related artwork: no answer. Outside the POV-Ray community, where a few people at least reacted to it, the story fell completely flat and wasn't picked up: it made a brief appearance in a French CG website, and, some years later, it resurfaced in a couple of posts in the Ubuntu forums when people discovered it in Mark Shuttleworth's resume, but by far and large our story was ignored by bloggers and on-line forums.

Now there are many reasons for the failure. The timing was terrible because we couldn't use the short window that was the space flight itself: the laptop with the image on it came back months later, once the flight was completely forgotten. Also, we didn't really push the story: we thought that it had legs, that it would run by itself and sort of snowball once released in the internet but, unlike the most braindead LOLCAT, it didn't. We could have spammed every open source, computer graphics, art or aerospace forum out there, but we had obvious ethical reasons for not doing so and forum users don't like being spammed in any case. Another reason is that space flights are no longer newsworthy: people don't care much about the space shuttle, the ISS or astronauts unless they end up in big fireballs. Another is that the whole concept of "rendering" a 3D image is lost on the immense majority of people who, rightfully, couldn't understand what had been done in the first place.

I don't have any regret of course. Mark got home safely, and while the image isn't the best computer rendering ever, we had fun doing it, it was an exciting project and it's still a good story to tell. It's just that we would have liked to share it with more people.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

Hacking a cheap Canon camera

My cheap Canon IXUS 950 (Powershot SD800 IS in other countries) is a good little camera. Sure, I'd prefer a serious SLR with better lenses and more sophisticated light metering, but digicam quality is good enough for what I do, i.e. mostly family pictures and tourist shots. It's also extremely light (150g!) which makes it ideal to carry around in my pocket, unlike a SLR weighing one kilo and more. However, the manual controls are extremely limited: ISO, exposure, white balance, image size and some (largely useless) color tweaking. There's no way to override autofocus, shutter speed or aperture. Also, there's no battery gauge except the one that starts flashing 2 minutes or so before the battery is finished, which is completely stupid... except for Canon, who probably sells more backup batteries that way.

Now it turns that some very clever folks have developed a firmware enhancement called CHDK (Wiki pages and download area) (I guess it stands for Canon Hack Development Kit) that adds interesting features to several cheap Canon digicams, including RAW file support, battery indicator, ISO control, shutter speed control, focus control (didn't work for me though), histogram (RGB/luminance), zebra mode (areas of over-/underexposure), DOF calculator, scripts (in BASIC!), focus bracketing, exposure bracketing and more. Exposure bracketing is particularly interesting for creating high-dynamic range images, both as 8-bit images for display (see image below) or 32-bit true HDR images for use as environment textures in 3D computer graphics.

HDR image created with exposure bracketingThe CHDK wiki describes the firmware in detail and provide links to download pages and utilities (like RAW conversion and processing software). Installation is simple, just copy a couple of files in the root directory of the SD card and load the firmware according to the instructions. The firmware is not stored in the camera itself, so it's always possible to revert to the original firmware. Whether using CHKD voids the warranty isn't clear from a legal point of view, but then wiping the SD card should work ;)

This kind of hack is also a clear demonstration that these cameras are actually crippled for pure marketing reasons. There's absolutely no technical rationale for selling them without a proper battery indicator and the ability to override automatic settings. These practices are common for software, but it's a little unsettling to see them in hardware too.


Friday, March 21, 2008

3D before 3D

We're so used to seeing computer graphics everywhere that we no longer notice them, except when they're really awful. But lots of visuals that are now made with CG used to be done the hard way with bits of wood, metal and plastic. The video below is a Behind the scenes 10-minute featurette from 1983 that shows how the HBO Introduction was created. While the use of miniatures isn't surprising (it's still widely used today in special effects), I really liked the fact that a flying, shiny metallic logo at that time was actually built in chrome-plated brass that "flew" over a black table. Also notable are the star blast effect (two sheets of semi-transparent plastic moving on top of each other) and the meteor shower effects (a bunch of rotating, colored optic fibers).

Today, a trained 3D artist could do all that, and possibly faster, on a comparatively cheap desktop machine, but the practical ingenuity displayed by the HBO effects crew is still amazing.



Wednesday, March 19, 2008

New Mini Cooper model

I have a backlog of models created in Rhino and Wings during my POV-Ray days that I'm slowly converting to Cinema 4D and finalRender. I wish I could do new stuff instead but that's still faster than creating new images...
So my old Mini Cooper from 2004 is now a Cinema (and OBJ) model that people can download here. There was a lot of cleanup to do and it allowed me to learn more about Bodypaint (the original model had horrible uv mapping). Making the Cinema 4D / Advanced Render image was extremely straightforward. The finalRender version (left) was tougher: I wanted a completely sunless lighting, correct reflections and a visible cloudy sky at the same time and it was much harder than I thought. Also, I couldn't manage to create a proper "raindrop" texture for the car so it's strangely dry in a wet environment.
Next models to be done: the numerous plants I did with Xfrog in 2002-2003.

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