RealiMation from November 1997 to September 1999 @ Datapath (part 1)

Previously: RealiMation at Datapath before I joined

I’ve had to split this into several parts as it originally came to nearly 3000 words – far too long for a single post – I had forgotten just how much we packed into these two years. I’ll post the other parts over the next few days and update each with a links to the next and previous sections. I’ve also updated the first part with a link to this one. This will also be, naturally, primarily concerned with what I did.

I joined Datapath in November 1997. At that time RealiMation occupied one room in Datapath’s offices on Alfreton Road, Derby. I knew of Datapath as they had supplied my previous company (PAFEC Ltd) with graphics terminals in the days before the Windows PC became the de facto standard computer, when we were developing CAD applications on mainframe and midi computers. Greg Whitfield had left PAFEC to join Datapath some years previously as had a few other PAFEC employees – though they had all left Datapath before I started. There was, and (as far as I know) still is a fairly large development team writing drivers and support tools for Datapath’s range of graphics cards.

My first job was writing a DirectX retained mode importer. This was partly a training exercise to introduce me to the libraries and the systems at Datapath. A couple of customers made use of the importer, but it wasn’t developed any further as the use of DirectX as a file format never really took off. One of the reasons I got the job at Datapath was my familiarity with file transfer formats such as DXF and my ability to interpret this data when converting it into the target format.

After this I was given the responsibility for the RealiStorm exporters. These used a common visualisation core together with unique code for reading the 3D data from the host application. There were three versions – 3D Studio MAX, AutoCAD and MicroStation. They were exporters as they were custom dll’s built using the host application’s API and libraries and were called from within the host application. Initially the most popular version was that built for 3D Studio MAX.

3D Studio MAX was (and still is) designed for producing finished animations for TV, not real-time animation, though with a powerful enough PC and graphics card it can render some scenes in real-time. As the animation is the important aspect it maintains a 30 frame per second frame-rate by performing what it called Adaptive Degradation. It starts with the rendered scene, but will reduce the objects to flat polygons, then wireframes and finally boxes to keep the frame rate up. In extreme cases it will even reduce the number of objects displayed. All of this means that it can be difficult to see what’s going on in the animation.

Our key partner at that time was the maker of the 3DFx graphics card. They bundled our software with the card and used its ability to perform real-time animation of the fully rendered scene as a key selling point. The fact that we couldn’t always maintain 30 fps didn’t matter. The user was seeing something that was close to the final animation in real-time. This enabled them to check that the animation was OK before producing the final render, which in those days could take several hours – depending on the complexity and length of the animation.

I also wrote an exporter for SoftImage. Inner Workings, a Scottish games company, used SoftImage and needed a way of visualising their models in real-time. As with 3D Studio MAX, SoftImage couldn’t do this. I created a version of RealiStorm that used the SoftImage API to read their data. The added complication was that SoftImage wasn’t a “real” Windows application – having been ported from Unix. This meant that the application wasn’t MFC based. I had to link an MFC based dll (RealiStorm) into this program. Luckily I knew it could be done as the MicroStation version of RealiStorm had exactly the same architecture. Coincidentally, several years later at Criterion I worked with someone who’d been at Inner Workings during this time.

I did some work on taking RealiMation models back into 3D Studio MAX via RealiStorm. This was the only program we interfaced to that could do this. I got as far as being able to create objects, lights and cameras. We never got animation working as the two animation systems were fundamentally different. The work was done so that models could be rendered in 3D Studio MAX so animation wasn’t a high priority.

Larry Binks worked for a while on a helicopter simulation game. The player would be in a simulator pod on hydraulic rams and the movements in the game would be simulated by the pod, with the graphics matching the motion. Unfortunately the client wanted it to be more of a simulation than a game, which made it very difficult to fly. Larry worked on this for some time before the client either realised that it wouldn’t work or ran out of money.

People – Phil Sturdy (left), Rob Love (left before the buy out to travel – ending up in Australia).

Next time: RealiMation the Datapath Years, Part 2.

© 2009, Chris. All rights reserved. If you republish this post can you please link back to the original post.

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