Half of this image is a photo, and half is a CGI rendering.
Computer-generated images are moving out of theaters and onto store shelves and catalog pages, thanks to software that makes it nearly impossible to distinguish the real from the photorealistic.Encroaching upon what was once the domain of sci-fi filmmakers, product designers have started employing CGI and utilizing a program called KeyShot to give their digital models lighting effects that makes them appear to be actual items photographed in a studio or out in the wild.
You’ve likely seen KeyShot’s output, although you may not have realized it. That ultra-perfect computer image, with dead-on lighting that highlights all its critical features? The sweatsuit with the fabric that clings together where the seams stretch? The uber-clean Jeep deep in the hills on a gravely trail? All done in KeyShot, a program that enhances CAD creations to the point that they become indistinguishable from the real thing.
“The entire Microsoft Surface marketing campaign was done in KeyShot, and if you go out and buy any Microsoft product, the picture on the box is made with KeyShot,” says Henrik Wann Jensen, an Academy Award-winning computer graphics professor who founded KeyShot’s parent company, Luxion. ”The same goes for pretty much every smartphone, tablet, even the Nook was made in KeyShot.”
Dave Vogt, an industrial designer who uses KeyShot in his work for Skullcandy, says that the speed that the software creates its output is a huge advantage. “Being able to pull in 3-D and have a juicy render sub 5 minutes is pretty impressive,” he says. “It’s a huge visualization asset for us to be able to instantaneously reroute a colorway mid-meeting and work through ideas.”
Other designers echo Vogt’s sentiment about the pace of work that KeyShot offers, making it stand out above other packages that try to produce similar effects. Tim Feher, who generates images for some of the top automakers, notes, “I have real, artistic-grade paints and I can see the impact of my work instantly. For me, speed is key. And KeyShot allows me to demonstrate multiple iterations quickly.”
KeyShot is a “camera for data” that is used to render cameras and other consumer electronics.
Despite its tech pedigree, the product has humble roots — it was originally designed to help window manufacturers preview lighting solutions. Now, it’s used to render Unilever shampoo bottles, Luis Vuitton leather bags, and even parts for the Millenium Falcon. Marco Di Lucca says that while he can’t reveal the projects he’s currently working on at Industrial Light & Magic, his work with KeyShot, especially its ability to generate realistic skin, have made him a believer.
“Rendering human skin has always been a huge challenge to get right,” he explains. “Skin rendering is a very complex matter, scientifically speaking, and what it makes even harder is the fact that we look at ourselves every day and it becomes very easy to spot a fake computer-generated imagery.”
For product shots, KeyShot is a control freak’s dream. Unlike photographs, the images it produces show no greasy fingerprints and are unmarred by dust. “If someone puts their heart and soul to a product, they want the images to be perfect,” says Jensen.
Technically, KeyShot works by simulating the scattering of photons as they bounce around in a scene and interact with the different materials. According to Jensen, “The rendering engine in KeyShot is the only one that has been verified by the International Commission on Illumination (CIE) as computing the scattering of light correctly (CIE 171:2006). We have been careful in ensuring that the physics is correct and this is one of the main reasons why we can simplify the interface and focus on the key parameters such as the color of the materials.”
KeyShot leverages Jensen’s scientific research, but he’s always excited to collaborate with artists to improve the product. “I was developing this paint that I thought was really good,” he says. “The physics made sense, but when I showed it to a famous car photographer he pointed out some details I missed.” Far from being deflated by the criticism, Jensen enjoys working with demanding professionals to help improve the product.
A CAD-generated wristwatch (top) gets the KeyShot makeover (bottom).
The renderings produced by KeyShot are also being used in development. The team at Luxion has spent a great deal of timing making sure their renderings are as close to photorealistic as possible. Chemical giant DuPont was so impressed with the verisimilitude of the renderings that car designers can actually spec their virtual paints in a CAD model and order real paints for a physical model, all in the same interface.
After conquering the world of product rendering, Jensen is leveraging advances in Moore’s law to tackle some of the most intractable challenges in computer graphics. First up is utilizing his technology, capable of rendering the face of a watch, to do the same for the human face — a technological challenge that Jensen attributes to the complexity of subcutaneous hair and blood.
The latest KeyShot release adds some impressive features, like stereoscopic viewing of models — a demo Jensen will be presenting at Siggraph this summer. With increasingly realistic images being produced in 3-D on MacBooks, Jensen thinks a real virtual-reality revolution — without the clunkyLawnmower Man look — could be within sight. “If we can raise the fidelity of the images, present them in 3-D and we can fool the eyes, I think it’s possible.”
KeyShot is rocketing CG artists out of the uncanny valley, providing a glimpse of the future. Photo: Marco Di Lucca