The Squirrel’s Up on Glass in the Aquarium

I used to work for Technicolor Videocassette back in the day. We’re talking about 1990 here. Back when the videocassette was king, and the Intel 486 pretty much ruled the world. In those days Technicolor made about 70% of all the VHS cassettes in the world (including all of Disney’s stuff).

Anyway, we were flying out to Westland, Michigan every week, doing our development work on their videocassette packaging and shipping pipeline that they were integrating with Walmart for what’s called “JIT” delivery (“Just In Time”) services. This meant they’d get the order for the specific video tapes, pick them from inventory and ship just the ones the store had requested.

So we were working on a database driven system that fed a monstrous device called the A-Frame, which was little more than a big conveyor belt from which video cassettes were picked from the stacks standing along its pathway. The cassettes would be selected by computer, be popped off the bottom of the stack, hit the belt, and end up in a box at the end. It made the job of finding the cassettes in the warehouse for each order moot, and saved a lot of steps for the people who had to run around and fill the individual orders. We had spent months on the project, and were working in a small long room with windows in one side that had previously been a shop floor production office. We called the thing The Aquarium because it resembled nothing more than a big fish tank, about the same proportions and glass on the one side, you get the idea.

We had sort of a pointy-haired IT manager, who shall remain nameless (partly because I don’t remember his name, so it’s just as well). We put a sign in the window of the Aquarium that said Do Not Tap On Glass, just like you’d see at a pet store, but when he saw it he didn’t get it at we had to explain it to him. Not the brightest crayon in the box, this guy.

The real story was the database server. Today everybody talks about SQL servers, and they’re commonplace, but back then it was brand new and nobody really had a good handle on what they could do and how they worked – except this one guy in his early 20’s we’d hired away from Microsoft, because he was an expert in SQL. You pronounce it “sequel”, but back then nobody could agree on how it was pronounced, and this ex-Microsoftie called it “Squirrel”. It was as apt as any other pronunciation, and we liked the confused expressions people got when we talked about it in front of them, being the incurable geeks that we were, and so for us, it stuck.

Then came the problem of connecting the SQL server to the A-Frame. In those days we had pretty bad networking. The best you could get was something called ARCnet, and the cards cost about $300 each, and that was in 1990 dollars. They failed a lot, and these days your average cable modem outperforms it by about ten to one or more. So to cover the great distances involved in the warehouse where we were, we needed something better. There was no wifi then, but there was optical fiber.

This was the glass stuff. It was expensive, and fragile. Once a forklift ran over a cable and broke the fragile strands, and a thousand dollars worth of this glass cable had to be restrung. Finally, the networking problems and the SQL server and the A-Frame were all connected together, and we ran our first communications test. We all held our breaths, and sent the message from the control station. The A-Frame responded.

We had been working for months getting to that point. you never saw a bunch of programmers whooping and hollering with excitement as we did that morning.

While all this was going on, the Pointy Haired IT manager happened by and asked what all the commotion was about.

“The Squirrel’s up on glass in the aquarium!” we happily exclaimed.

Mr. Manager just looked quizzically confused, and not wanting to admit that he had no idea what we were talking about, gave us a vague, slightly open-mouthed smile, and excused himself.

-- Gene Turnbow

– 30 –

Pics AND It Didn’t Happen

Pics AND It Didn’t Happen

A new technique developed by Germany’s Technische Universität allows elements to be removed from video images in real time.  They’re purportedly working on a version of this that runs in Android, so I may be able to try this for myself on my Droid phone soon.

Watch the YouTube video and be amazed.

— Gene Turnbow

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Pics AND It Didn’t Happen

That’s Life (Drawing)

I start another life drawing class in about a week, and I’m brushing up on my Maya chops. Soon I’ll be able to run with the big dogs. In the meantime, check out the code page – I’ve finally fixed the problem with the nGene source code that prevented it from compiling cleanly on Linux using KDevelop 2.0! Unfortunately, I waited so long that KDevelop 3.0 has been out for months now. Ah, well, it may work as is, but if it doesn’t, I’ll fix it.

What a busy year it’s been. It seems like it’s all gone by in a blur.

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nGene

nGene

The nGENE
Here’s the source code and compiled binaries for my little OpenGL engine, which I have named the “nGene” after a suggestion by a coworker.

It’s a little odd as engines go in that it loads Lightwave 6.x (or greater) scene and model files and renders them, and then lets you fly a camera around and look at them. It lights the scene according to whatever lights you put in the scene, but all lights are translated as point lights. I never got spotlights or area lights working. It does respect global ambience settings in the scene, though, as well as maintain the hierarchical relationship between all the scene elements (i.e., parenting of scene elements is preserved at runtime.

To clarify the copyright status of the nGene, it’s open source and licensed under the LGPL, meaning you can use this code for your commercial projects if you wish, without having to worry about having to release the code for it or your own project along with the compiled form. By all means, steal the parts you like and toss them into your project if you think it’ll help. It’s why I wrote it in the first place. Note that I’m not responsible for the results, i.e, if it breaks, you get to keep all the pieces.
If you do download it, note that you’ll be in good company – the nGene has been downloaded over a quarter million times since I originally posted it.

Special thanks to gifted artist and animator Eric Estrada, currently a lighter at Dreamworks, for the 3D scan of his head.

It texture maps, but only UV textures, and there are a few ways to apply the textures in Lightwave that don’t actually work. The best approach seems to be to convert whatever conventional texture mapping you might have on your models into UV maps using the “Make UVs” tool in the “Map” toolset in modeler. Since the loader doesn’t handle DMAP chunks, models using cylindrical or spherical mapping need to have the vertices split at the seam, or you’ll get mapping errors. Also, I never got around to writing the polygon smoothing algorithm, so for now it’s flat shaded only.
The source code will compile under either Windows, using Microsoft Visual C++ 6.x or greater, or under Linux using GCC. Yup, it’s cross-platform code!
Download the source code, binaries and sample data here. It’s about 3 megs because of all the model files and textures and whatnot that you get with it. I wouldn’t get too excited if I were you – once I got the object and scene loaders working, the rest of the engine was done in about five days. It does give some good example code for reading objects in native Lightwave LWO2 format, though. By the way, in the ‘credit where credit is due’ department, I started with the example ‘C’ loader code written by Yoshiaki Tazaki at D-Storm.

UPDATE: I’ve only just now gotten around to fixing a problem with the project files that kept you from using KDevelop 2.1. I know 3.0 is out, that’s next, but at least this version works in Linux now. It’s a tarred, gzipped archive.
Once you’ve gotten it to compile (it shouldn’t be difficult if you know how to use the compiler at all), run it by giving a parameter of either a model file or a scene file. If you give it a scene file as a parameter, it’ll assume all the assets are right there in the same directory with you, even if the scene file says otherwise. If you give it a model file as a parameter, it’ll just load the model file and let you spin it around and look at it from different angles. If you can’t compile the project or don’t want to bother, binary executables are included for both Linux and Windows.
Interestingly, the Linux version runs significantly faster than the Windows version does, even though it’s exactly the same code. I think Linux just works better from the standpoint of interfacing the OpenGL API with the hardware. I know I could do a lot more about optimizing the rendering pipeline, though. Right now the only thing I do is sort the polygons by material; this cuts down on having to use the GL material commands for every single darned polygon, and it sped things up a lot. It’s still not a really quick engine as engines go, but it’s quicker than it first was.
I wrote this engine as an exercise, and I stopped before I finished it. There are leftovers and leavings of various ideas in it that I never implemented. The object and scene loading classes themselves are fairly clean, however, and I did my best to keep that functionality as encapsulated as possible so they could be reused by somebody else if needed. So don’t cringe when you read the code. You’ve been warned.


It was used by the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro-Imaging – here is the testimonial letter I received from Craig Schwartz:

E-MAIL: craig@nospamplease.loni.ucla.edu
X-Mailer: ELM [version 2.5 PL2]
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X-Mailer: ELM [version 2.5 PL2]
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Content-Type: text/plain; charset=us-ascii
Content-Transfer-Encoding: 7bit
Dear Gene, a few weeks ago you helped me with nGene – which I’ve been using to debug a small java library which creates LWO files as output. Although the contributed ModelViewer module did not have everything I wanted, and was unable to display the largest of my test data sets, it did enough (supported by nGene) that I was able to use it to keep my coding, thereby contributing significantly to my successful project.
Many thanks!
Craig Schwartz
UCLA Laboratory of Neuro-Imaging

Writing Plugins for Lightwave

I am nearing completion of a small suite of plugins for a commercial client – what an adventure that’s been! I was writing Lightwave plugins to translate STL object model format into Lightwave model format, while preserving the materials attributes (raw STL doesn’t support materials). Then I had to write a new shader to render them that took into account the surface smoothing errors that the STL models tend to have in them (because of the strange tesselation choices the exporting software that creates STL files tend to make). I got it all working, finally. But boy was that stuff hard. I decided I’d never do another Lightwave plugin after that.