Once and Future Graphics Pioneer, Part II
These technologies, as currently used today, have their drawbacks. Because QuickTime VR, for instance, samples only a few images, the resulting animation may suffer from geometric distortions or blank spots, or they may fail to capture specular highlights.
To overcome these shortcomings, PCG researchers are comparing image-based renderings of scenes with physically accurate images. They are identifying the most important sources of error in image-based rendering and refining algorithms to alleviate those problems.
Technology in the Design Studio
For the past three years, select undergraduate design students at Cornell's Department of Architecture, have benefited from the program's technologically rich environment. In the fall of 1999, for example, a third-year design studio used computers to develop projects for an Indian Culture Museum in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.
To celebrate the many facets of Anasazi, Hopi, and Pueblo cultures, the museum wanted to focus both inward on the spaces that exhibited cultural artifacts and outward to the beautiful surrounding desert. As in many other undergraduate studios, the students were asked to study issues of light, scale, and environment, but the similarity ended there.
Although these students had minimal experience with computer-aided design (CAD) before the semester began, they were able to exploit it fully to design and present their projects. They created their models of the museum using the Autodesk packages, 3D Studio Viz and Lightscape. The physically accurate rendering software informed students about such issues as whether their skylights were illuminating the exhibits at the times and in the amounts that the students intended.
With software available at the PCG, the students placed their models within a photographic, 360-degree panorama of the real site. Thus, any view from inside the model out through a window automatically displayed the correct portion of the surrounding landscape.
Also, being able to apply material textures to the surfaces in their renderings gave an aura of reality that improved the students' ability to empathize with the inhabitants in the space.
Indeed, the overall effect of the imagery gave a much clearer sense of feedback than architecture students normally experience. This allowed them to advance more quickly in their design development than is common among third-year students.
According to Moreno Piccolotto, who with Greenberg was their studio instructor, the students' success can also be attributed to the fact that computer applications are not taught as separate courses. Instead, students learn to model and render within the context of design thinking.
This provides them with the motivation to learn the applications quickly and thoroughly, and it teaches them subliminally the importance of taking a designerly approach to using the machines.
Piccolotto notes that students are also encouraged to blend traditional, manual media with their computer work whenever it is appropriate or more comfortable, such as with initial idea sketches.
He says that the sophisticated technology not only allows the students to present their work interactively, but it also enables average students to achieve a much higher level of expression than they would otherwise be able to.
During reviews throughout the semester, the students displayed their rendered projects on the PCG's nearly room-size display screen. For those sitting at an optimum distance from it, this screen gives a 120-degree panorama, making the viewer feel virtually immersed in the scene.
The triple-wide display from three projectors was particularly effective in portraying the vastness of the Chaco Canyon environment. Looking at nearly life-sized renderings made it easy for students and teachers to evaluate the designs.
Because they work with the most advanced possible technologies, Cornell students are getting an education using technologies they can expect to work with a few years from now rather than on today's technologies, many of which will be obsolete by then. Greenberg says, "We have always emphasized the teaching of concepts so that the students can ride the technological wave and never be outdated."
Indeed, PCG's work is characterized by a forward-looking philosophy. "We are creating the user-interfaces," Greenberg explains, "for tomorrow's technologies knowing with great confidence what will be available three years from now. We can demonstrate to the profession how their design tools might change over the next decade.
"Perhaps this is the most appropriate role that a research university can play, and we have been fortunate in being able to combine both the computer science and architecture professions in one interdisciplinary laboratory."
Cornell's Long Arm of Influence
Early in the history of computer-aided design systems, many students trained at Cornell University went on to create software that has greatly influenced the architecture profession's adoption of technology. In addition to research work that led to the widely used Lightscape rendering software, the program's graduates have also been leaders in developing 3D modelers.
Four Cornell alumni created Wavefront, which is now sold by Silicon Graphics subsidiary, Alias/Wavefront. John Pittman led the development work at Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum (HOK) to create a pioneering, in-house system of design and drafting software, some of which is still in use. Many of the key innovators at Autodesk, including Kevin Weiler and Carl Bass, came out of Cornell's program.
One of the leaders in computer-aided design development at Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM) was Nicholas Weingarten, also from Cornell. He now works at J.D. Edwards in Chicago on "CustomWorks," a system for configuring made-to-order and engineered-to-order products. They have modeled everything from custom windows, which can be specified in an infinite variety, to entire houses for a modular home builder.
Weingarten studied under Greenberg in the early to mid 1970s, during the early days of computer graphics research. Long before most architects had even heard of computers, Greenberg's team was borrowing state-of-the-art technology from the aerospace industry.
Although primitive by today's standards, and painfully difficult to use, these early computers were put to work generating architectural images and, more important, the underlying algorithms. The Cornell group created an animation of their campus; its publication in Scientific American in 1974 helped to popularize computer graphics for architectural applications.
Looking back at his days at Cornell, Weingarten credits Greenberg with fueling a keen curiosity about the science behind computer graphics. He also created an environment for fostering an architectural problem-solving approach and a designer's eye for the quality and usefulness of the resulting imagery.
"Greenberg is one of the world's most respected experts in this field," Weingarten asserts, "but he's also pursued a lot of things from the aesthetic side. That's why his passion for trying to render the beauty of the real world is so keen. He's combined that passion with a deep understanding of both math and physics."
During Weingarten's time at Cornell, he witnessed the evolution of animation, the use of 3D topological maps for resource analysis, the development of innovative structural analysis of inflatables and large-scale domes, and the graphing of energy flows through buildings. He remembers the PCG as "a very exciting place."
After graduation, Weingarten took his experience in structural analysis and visual simulations to SOM, where he joined Doug Stoker's computer group that created the 3D design system that later became IBM AES. This software, used extensively for production at SOM, was developed to design high-rise buildings, and it integrates the disciplines of architecture and engineering.
Although AES was never widely used in this country, it was influential in establishing a high standard for the potential of architectural software. Its creators have gone on to become the leaders in software development today.
B.J. Novitski is managing editor for ArchitectureWeek and author of Rendering Real and Imagined Buildings.
This article first appeared in Architectural Record, June, 2000.