Saturday, 21 May 2011

Changing Technology

In preparing for the presentation I gave for Excitech (see earlier post "A Canvas for Design") I looked through some images from work I produced over the last 5 or so years. I was struck by the change in quality of the images and the amount of effort required to produce them over this relatively short time. I find it quite amazing how swiftly technology progresses and yet how easily we all seem to adjust and adopt to it and to almost immediately take the new capabilities for granted. This ever changing situation has always fascinated, excited, and concerned me in equal measures. I love gadgets and I love experimenting with new software to see where I can push it to. I've always seen technology as something which can provide me with a competitive advantage over others who are not so technology savvy and which can help me to create better more considered designs in less time. In the past the ability to harness software in this way was really limited only to those who took a particular interest in it. However, thanks to the likes of companies such as Apple, who focus on the user experience rather than mere specification, technology is maturing into something which operates "in the background" and is becoming more accessible to all.

2006: Modeled and Rendered in 3ds Max (©Dyer)
2006: Modeled and Rendered in 3ds Max (©Dyer)

A good example of the demystification of technology in architectural design is the progress made in rendering engines over the last few years. I always thought that the ability to create a good image from a 3d model was something of a black art in which I dabbled. To do so you had to first learn how to create a 3d model bearing in mind the limitations of processor power, combining careful decisions on the level of detail to model against the scale of the final image with the ability to represent the detail in your scene with advanced mapping techniques. Next you needed to master the techniques required to produce believable materials, including understanding the processes and software required to make accurate maps and images to place in your scene. Then you would experiment with how to light your model - something I always found particularly difficult with interior scenes when rendering without ray-tracing or global lighting solutions. You would then fiddle with a whole list of rendering parameters, run a series of test renders, before finally pressing the button for the production render and sitting back and waiting, often overnight, before coming back only to discover that you forgot to switch that one light back to cast shadows that you disabled during the test rendering stage. Eventually you would finish off in post production compositing the image in Photoshop or an equivalent image editing application.

To be fair if you wish to create high end results the process described is broadly the same still today. However, the ability to create good looking, repeatable, and believable scenes with almost a single click of a button has been possible in Revit using Mental Ray since Revit 2011 was released. The images produced are good enough for most requirements and can be produced fairly simply by the architect in charge of the model without help from specialist visualisors.

2009: Interior modeled and Rendered in Revit, view added with Photoshop (©Dyer)
Now I have merely focused on the process of rendering as an example to make a point, but it brings me to identify the healthy concern that I have with this ever changing technology: the need to continuously advance yourself in order to maintain a competitive advantage. This thought opens a whole series of questions such as "how does the shape of architectural practice respond to ever more powerful design tools" but that is an issue I probably want to address in another post in the future. For now the question I ask is probably the one that has driven my interest in technology the most throughout my career: "what is the next thing I can learn in order to continue to give myself an edge?".

2011: Modeled in Revit, Rendered in 3ds Max (©Dyer)

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