Last week the Chaos Group moved from being a software provider to also being a hardware or service company. With the huge success of V-Ray and the growth of Chaos Group along with that, it was still a surprise to many to learn of VRscans. After nearly five years of research and planning, the company now offers real world material scanning and textures.
Not only is this a bureau service, but it is possible for large companies to explore having their own VRscanners in house.
The first thing that should be noted is that the company is not targeting this at the VFX community, although there has been a lot of interest from the effects community around the announcement. This should be seen as further validation of the importance of the industrial design market. Highly accurate and simple to obtain material textures will be hugely popular with garment and show designers, but still VFX houses may find this the 'ultimate reference' for matching say live action costumes to digital doubles.
The system works simply with users sending samples off and getting back a comprehensive digital version which can be as large as 320mb. The files themselves are not interchangable with other renderers and are not easily editable. What is returned is a packaged solution to rendering the material and not a set of normal texture maps and V-Ray settings.
The system works well with complex weaves such as cloth, but does not do sub surface scatter nor does it scan highly reflective materials such as sunglasses or mirrored chrome surfaces.
The VRscans system is a full-service, physical material scanning service. Customers send in their material samples, and Chaos's lab techs scan, process, and deliver a .vrscan file that’s ready to render in V-Ray through a special VRscans plugin.
The .vrscan file format is proprietary. It includes everything one needs to render a material from any angle and in any lighting condition – all in a single file. There are no individual maps or components. Of course there are some basic adjustments that are possible, while the .vrscan file cannot be modified, color filter (tinting), bump strength, and UV tiling are available adjustments.
Technically the VRscan is an excellent reference since it accurately records all conditions of lighting on a surface. For the VFX industry one could reverse engineer a matching traditional BRDF using the VRscan just as reference, but unlike many references, one could check the traditional BRDF to the VRscan at any angle and produce a more faithful match.
However there are also quite a few instances of real-world materials that cannot be accurately represented by any single analytic BRDF model. "One of our first tasks was to scan and render a woven textile material where differently colored threads are weaved in such a way that the material looks blue when you look at it from one direction, and red if you look at it from another direction," explained Chao Group's Chris Nichols. "It may be possible to recreate that look with a complex view-dependent layered shader, but it would be quite a lot of work - and getting the thread pattern to look believable would be close to impossible."
It is also the case that many real-world materials cannot be cleanly separated into the standard diffuse and reflection components. They can be approximated to various degrees of success, but if one has a client that is making production choices based on the renders then accuracy can be vital.
Given the nature of our industry, it is pleasing to see that from start to finish, a scan takes only about 2 hours. The capture takes only a few minutes, but processing and compiling the data takes most of the time. Then, each material passes through quality control before delivery. This means it should be possible to meet tight production schedules, depending upon shipping times. Unfortuately the first rig is based in the company's Sofia office, in Europe, but there seems no reason that an LA or American scanner could not follow if there is demand. That being said, you can't get large objects scanned so there is no need to ship a car door to Europe, a sample is used and if required this can be tiled to produce a much larger surface.
The pricing at the moment is in euros, for each scan expect to pay 300 euros, but the Chaos Group will also offer volume discounts to studios.
VRscans is the result of four to five years of research and development. "We developed the hardware and software in house, and we enlisted help to fabricate the final scanner design," says Chaos Group's David Tracy. "We felt we were uniquely equipped to solve this problem because of our expertise in physically-based rendering. We knew exactly what the end result should look like, and we worked backwards to develop the steps to get there."
VRscans is primarily designed for automotive, aerospace, product design, furniture design, textile and material manufacturers. It seems perfect for creating highly accurate virtual prototypes. VRscans has the ability to not only save designers the set up time typically involved with materials, by making it a drag and drop process, but it also provides small or freelance designers a chance to produce the most accurate renderings possible, without the infrastructure of a big team.
While Chaos has not had a Beta program they have been working closely with several large companies to test and demonstrate the capabilities of VRscans. Each of these projects is under NDA, but around SIGGRAPH time scale it is hoped more can be shown of the current commercial applications.
For now, VRscans is a unique venture for Chaos Group. Because the hardware is located in their Sofia office, the scanning service is the best way to provide customers with physically accurate material scans. It will be interesting to see how customers react and if there are more of these types of services offered by the company in the future.
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