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3D DIRECT • November 13, 2000

Eternal Truth of the Month

Hey 3D Companies: Play Well With Others Dammit!

by Swami

Play nice

Prognosticating about what software companies do and don't do is a habit of this mystic, who is rooted in a long tradition of speaking up when something in the CG universe isn't quite right. And this is definitely the case in my latest musing here at 3Dgate. What I am referring to is the utter lack of cooperation between competing 3D software companies in creating an open, cross-application compatible file format for 3D data.

There are a multitude of reasons these companies offer as to why we don't have a common 3D file format, but in truth it comes down to the basest of human emotions, that being, of course, greed. The 3D companies all see themselves eventually dominating the 3D space, and taking over the world of 3D animation as we know it, with their proprietary brand of tools. This kind of thinking is wrong for many reasons, and these companies need to realize that a common 3D format is in their best interest.

The first and best reason is that in a production environment, multiple tools are usually enlisted to solve production problems. Other times, people trained on packages convince their company that it must purchase that product in order to get the employee up and running quickly. I have been in many 3D animation facilities, whether for film, TV, or games, and the one thing I have always seen is multiple 3D packages in use one way or another throughout a production. Surely, companies will tend to rally around, or in extreme cases, commit fully to one app for their studio, as is the case with Blur Studios in their holy commitment to Discreet 3D Studio MAX. Although noble, and not without its sensibilities, sticking with only one app is definitely not status quo.

The VRML file format was supposed to be the panacea for our 3D file format woes. Touted by the VRML Consortium (Now the X3D Consortium), Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) was a 3D file format promoted as primarily a Web3D format. The VRML Consortium evangelized the VRML format as a way to have a cross-application format that could serve all the needs of the 3D community. Although a noble idea, the format fell far short of its lofty goals. To use an analogy, think about if every 2D application out there handled the TIFF file format in different ways. We'd be in true graphics file format hell, yet as much as we truly need a common, feature-packed 3D file spec, it hasn't come to light. VRML was good for transferring polygonal geometry between apps, and not much more.

A call to arms

I call upon all of the major (as well as the smaller) 3D software companies out there to realize that the one thing that would benefit all of them, the end users and 3D in general, is the creation of an open source, agreed upon format that would be robust (You marketing people know that word) enough to deal with all of the peculiarities that 3D data brings. There are issues like polygonal data, NURBS surfaces, UV mapping, and so much more that will need to be incorporated, that it will require everyone to get together and develop something for the common good, not solely for profit.

Resources for 3D File Formats (There are many more, just look, or conjure.)

http://www.okino.com/conv/filefrmt.htm

http://www.cica.indiana.edu/graphics/3D.objects.html

http://www.dcs.ed.ac.uk/home/mxr/gfx/3d-hi.html

http://www.sculptor.org/Technology/3Dformats.htm

http://www.stmuc.com/thbaier/products.html

http://www.xdsoft.com/explorer

Speaking of marketing, any company who didn't adopt the open 3D file spec would be accused of not wishing to "play ball," and users would tend to jump ship for something more universal. This can be accomplished without much pain. In fact, the solution is quite simple, and I strongly encourage the 3D software firms out there to begin a serious discussion. It benefits them by being able to accept any data, and has no repercussions, feature wise, because it would be a global tool, like texture mapping, particle systems, or what have you.

These disparate companies need to come together and really make some progress on a shared file format. Take the compositing features of the .rpf format from MAX. Blend it with the mocap data features of Kaydara's Filmbox format. Make the texturing capabilities strong as they are with Alias|Wavefront Maya. Add expressions using subsets of the great scripting languages like MEL, MAXScript, COFFEE, and Lscript. The file format should represent more than just geometry though. Basic cameras and lighting setups should also be included, as well as particle information, physics routines, and animation keyframes. It should be a file format where 3D artists don't have to worry about the basics; they can go back and forth between multiple apps without worrying about data loss, texture placement, and so on. No 3D mystic in his or her right mind however, would assume that there is a one-size-fits-all solution, but we surely can do with better than what we have right now. Special needs will always be met with custom solutions, but 90 percent of our problems could be solved with a little zen-like cooperation.

Discreet is worth mentioning in this regard, as is the case with their imminent release of 3D Studio gMAX. GMAX is a 3D game level-creation tool based on the core of the professional version of MAX that will turn a small army of kids into 3D content creators, whether they know it or not. The fact that Discreet is doing this, and partnering with many game companies to achieve their goals, shows the power of open source, and the benefits of giving the right tools to the right people at the right time.

We're all artists here, people. No matter what tool or tools we use, we need to be creative, and we need our software providers to realize the scope of the situation. They put us in professional jeopardy with creating proprietary formats, and placing profits before creative benefit. I beseech these 3D gurus of the code to realize they are nothing without the sum of their parts, and they cannot survive in a vacuum. Whatever happens in the 3D industry, and no matter who wins, the ones that adopt an open file format for 3D will set the pace for things to come. And as you know if you are a student of CG history, being an early adopter is usually a sign of a market leader.

Okino, a small software company consisting of less than five people, has been one of the leaders in professional file format transfers between 3D programs for years now. Their software, PolyTrans and NuGraf, are some of the best tools around for shuffling 3D data back and forth between multiple 3D apps. I would urge the 3D software providers to work with a company like Okino to develop a format that everyone could agree upon, and that would provide mutual benefit to all the companies that supported it. We need a TIFF format for the 3D world. The only question is which company will be the first to step up to the plate and provide a truly open format that everyone can rally around. It will require the forsaking of some trade secrets, but I know the benefits will outweigh the risks. Let's all play well with others, and make a 3D file format we can all be proud of. I dare you Discreet, NewTek, Alias|Wavefront, Maxon, Avid, Caligari, Hash, all of you. Get together on this issue. When supporting your customers, you ultimately can't go wrong.

Thank you, come again!

Swami Rendalotsa is an online mystic for 3DGate, and wishes people, as well as companies, could remember that all they need to know to get along they learned in Kindergarten. Email him (Especially if you're a 3D company with the vision) at [email protected].