Softimage|XSI 7 Review by Ed Harriss.
CGIndia Feature

All images © Softimage

A new version of Softimage|XSI has arrived and from the looks of this release; the crew working on it appear to have been very, very busy. Updates and new features have been added to just about every major aspect of the software. However the one that seems to stand out the most is called ICE. What is ICE? It's an "Interactive Creative Environment" that can be used to create effects and tools. If you are familiar with XSI, then you've most likely used the render tree. (A node based material creation tool.) Formerly named Moondust, ICE is similar in that it is also a node based tool that allows you to build an effect from scratch, using very basic nodes (for atomic-level control) or higher level (pre-built) nodes to create something relatively complex in a much shorter time. Sounds great, but what does it do?

It allows you to use nodes to create interactive tools via a visual programming interface called the ICE Tree. Networks of these nodes can get data from the scene, modify and process it to create tools which can then be used to generate all sorts of effects and changes to the scene. Technically ICE can only be used to create particle effects and deformations, but that's an oversimplification. Since pretty much any point data can be manipulated with ICE it can create a lot more effects that most people would not think to put in those two categories. Additionally, there is a hidden feature that allows ICE to write to kinematics. (At the moment you can only read them.) You've got to adjust an environment variable to get to it, thus opening yourself up to the possible instabilities caused by an unsupported feature. But just knowing that Softimage is working to expand ICE into other areas of the program is very exciting. While ICE comes with hundreds of operators, it also comes with more than 200 presets that anyone can drop into the scene so they can start working immediately. These presets are actually compounds (more on that later) and can be "opened up" and modified to create totally different effects. Opening up a compound is also a good way for users new to ICE to learn how everything works.

Once nice thing about ICE is that anything it generates can be accessed by any other area of the program. For example, say you've created the perfect particle simulation but the client wants it slowed down or sped up. In the past, this would require a re-simulation, reworking of the particle system or manipulation of rendered frames. Now, with ICE you can drop your particle animation into the animation mixer and stretch or squash your simulation till you get the proper results. ICE isn't like most systems either. Feedback is very fast as it is 100% multi-threaded. So, if you've got an 8 core machine you won't have 7 cores idle while you wait.

ICE is not just limited to particle effects either. If it's in the scene, ICE can connect to it and manipulate it. For example, it can connect to an extrude operator and push out polygons. The effect can then be driven by a slider or just about anything. Textures, weight maps, the distance between objects, the color of a light, the current scene frame, the shape of an object etc… ICE can offset time on instances with animation. It can generate cloth effects, control rigid body dynamics, flocking crowd effects and much, much more.

ICE is more than just particles and deformations.    


ICE trees can become pretty complex, so Softimage has added a great annotation tool. This allows users to write descriptions of nodes or groups of nodes. Making it easier to decipher what is going on in the tree when users pass scenes between each other or when accessing old scenes where you may not remember just what you did.

Another tool for simplifying large ICE trees is the compound function. This allows the user to collapse any tree into a single node making it easier to pass from one scene (or user) to another. Additionally the creator can hide some of the unnecessary controls exposing only the ones needed by the end user. Compounds can also be opened up and adjusted in case the user needs more control. Some people might not want their compounds altered. For situations like this Softimage has provided a mechanism to lock the compound by saving it in a binary format.

I suspect that once ICE has been in the hands of the Softimage user base we'll see tools created that the designers never even thought of when they were writing it. For example, its capabilities are so unlimited that I've even seen it used to create a raytracer! ICE is such a huge addition to XSI that I could fill an entire set of reviews going over its features and abilities and barely scratch the surface. In order to try to cover as many of the other new aspects of XSI 7, let's move on.

The new ICE feature in XSI 7 is massive. To fully understand ICE it must be seen. Click on the videos below to see ICE in action.

http://www.vimeo.com/1349449 video
http://www.vimeo.com/1392786 video

Rendering and materials have gotten a huge upgrade in XSI 7. First off, mental ray 3.6 has been added and along with that comes a lot of new features. There is a new raytracing acceleration technique dubbed BSP2. Anyone familiar with mental ray, regardless of which software you use it with, knows about BSP and the effects it can have on rendering times. The biggest problem was that it had to be tuned properly in order for it to work efficiently. With BSP2, those parameters, such as depth and leaf settings, auto-tune themselves. This feature alone should save XSI users untold numbers of hours.

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