The Shape of 3-D to Come
-- by Lynn Ginsburg
Strange things are afoot in Redmond. Microsoft's traditional work force of pocket-protected nerds is being invaded by wild-eyed artists, as the company scoops up digital rights to the great works of art, hires some of the best and brightest computer graphics visionaries in the industry, and buys one of the premier Hollywood 3-D special-effects software companies, Softimage.
According to Craig Mundie, Microsoft's senior vice president, Consumer Platform Division, Microsoft in 1994 was forecasting a rapidly increasing consumer demand for multimedia, including 3-D graphics. The company needed to position itself to cash in on the trend. "In 1994 media creation was mostly being done on the Macintosh and SGI-PCs just weren't a factor," Mundie says. "We believed that Windows would become a very high-volume multimedia playback platform over time, and we thought it was poor logic to believe that you'd never be able to do media authoring on the same platform as playback."
A Viable Tool
Microsoft acquired Softimage as part of that strategy, according to Mundie. "Our purchase of Softimage demonstrated that we were serious about making the PC a viable media-creation tool," he says, adding that Microsoft's first task after purchasing SoftImage was to unite the 3-D company with the Windows NT team to collaborate on making NT a more suitable media-authoring platform.
Microsoft has also been busy hiring some of the biggest names in the 3-D technology industry, giving the monolith software developer some badly needed credibility with the graphics community. The most prominent of those hires, Alvy Ray Smith, was co-founder of Pixar Studios and co-inventor of some of the most significant technologies in computer graphics, including the RGB standard and the alpha channel. Smith says Microsoft is now the place to be for high-end 3-D graphics researchers.
Smith says that his mission at Microsoft is deceptively simple: to make creating sound and pictures "completely ordinary. The Web has been this surprise force that came from nowhere," he says. "Everyone wants their Web page to be attractive. That's what's forcing Microsoft to jump into this business. PCs have enough horsepower now to let just about anyone create multimedia. So the only thing that's missing is a comfortable interface."
A Clean Slate
Smith's aim is to create a new class of multimedia applications in which all multimedia authoring tools are available within a single transparent environment and easy enough for consumers to use. "The history of multimedia authoring has been separate applications for sound and pictures that don't know about each other," Smith explains. "This is nuts! It's just legacy junk that's in our way. What we're doing is wiping the slate clean, with a new single creative environment in which all aspects of sound and pictures-2-D, 3-D, pixels, sound and animation-will work together and know about each other."
Smith says that Softimage will be releasing a high-end version of this multimedia authoring environment first, currently named Digital Studio. However, his main goal remains delivering that functionality to ordinary users. "Thanks to the Web, in the very near future, everyone is going to be a producer," Smith says. "We want to make an interface that's as easy to use as TV."
3-D Picture Is Clear for Blur
Windows Magazine, May 1997, page 204.
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