By Michael Burns | on October 20, 2008
Price When Reviewed: 1725 . 1895 . 2700 . 2875
Pros: ICE node-based programming model; ICE Particles and Deformations; enhanced Render Tree, mental ray and real-time shaders; expansion of character primitives.
Cons: Some crashes; no Mac version; some key tools for Advanced users only.
The standout new feature of 3D modelling, animation and rendering application XSI 7 is a visual programming environment, ICE (Interactive Creative Environment). This opens up the application to more than shader writers and effects teams with scripting knowledge. In the ICE workflow, elements, such as particle generators and emitters, are linked in a data-flow view with the forces that act upon them and the processes that they undergo, all connected in a node tree.
The procedure is similar to the methods now used to assemble shaders in the Render Tree, which have also been updated. Nodes in both ICE and Render Trees can be grouped together to form compounds, making it easier to quickly start working with more complex effects (or shaders when in the Render Tree) without having to set up everything from scratch each time.
It’s also easy to work with the nodes and compounds within the trees. Through the drag-and-drop system, you can quickly add new nodes, remove ones you don’t need and edit the properties of any part of the tree. Double-clicking on any node brings up a properties dialog, where you can fine-tune the effect of the modifier or force – or material when working with shaders. On the revised Render Tree, shader nodes can also offer multi-output nodes, allowing the information calculated by the shader to be extracted to multiple data channels and to serve several functions.
It’s likely that successive versions of XSI will follow a roadmap to offer new extensible toolsets based on the ICE platform. To kick this off, version 7 introduces toolsets for creating particle effects and deformations. Say you have a cloud of particles, emanating from a polygon disc (the particle emitter) and you want to add a turbulent force to make them swirl. In version 7, you just drag a turbulence-modifier node into the ICE Tree and link it to the input node of the particle emitter.
According to Softimage, the ICE Particles toolset can be used to make any object move or behave like a particle. As ICE also contains an integrated physX rigid-body dynamics engine, you could simulate a number of colliding objects such as bricks or stones falling in a pile using particles as rigid bodies in conjunction with instanced geometry. It’s also plain to see you could use it for animating crowds of characters.
ICE lends itself further to realistic simulation by the introduction of ICE Particle Shaders, which include new volume and density shaders for creating fire, smoke and dedicated effects, like the blob shader, which adds textured geometry to liquid particle effects.