In late 2009 at NVIDIA's GPU conference I had the opportunity to see private demo of the beginnings of one of the very first cloud based rendering applications from a company called migenius. Long time veterans of the rendering world, they have pioneered the use of RealityServer to create interactive and photorealistic applications and web services for product designers and architects.
Fast forward three years to the just released Bloom Unit and we are treated with the first cloud based rendering plugin for SketchUp that leverages iray and RealityServer. As a truly interactive collaboration and rendering tool for the architectural community, Bloom Unit allows SketchUp 8 users to quickly and easily render projects with very little effort or rendering knowledge, while facilitating live interactive markup sessions between users using desktop and mobile devices.
By now most have at least heard about GPU rendering and rendering in the cloud. While there is still a lot of speculation around where it's all headed, I personally think it all clearly points to the democratization and simplification of rendering process, and the integration of visualization into all aspects of the design process. No longer will rendering just be a tool in the realm of specialists. For the 80-90% of the industry who are not full time rendering professionals, this opens the door to better designs, better communication and better collaboration. Tools like Bloom Unit are the first of what I anticipate to be many tools that help facilitate this evolution within the industry.
Bloom Unit is from a user perspective a very simple application that almost requires no instruction. The developers have done a lot to insulate the user from the technology on the backend and build a straightforward and intuitive interface. The plugin consists of three core functionalities: Photo-Real GPU cloud rendering, Proxied lighting and material libraries and a collaboration and markup tool. This review will cover Bloom Unit's three core functionalities and our first impressions of their 1.0 release.
Photo-Real GPU Cloud Rendering
After running the Bloom Unit installer you will be greeted to three new icons in the SketchUp toolbar interface to access all of the plugin features. They are the Bloom Unit Render button, the Bloom Unit Light Library and the Bloom Unit Material Editor.
Pressing the render button opens a status window, the Bloom Unit rendering window and uploads your scene to the remote servers to be rendered. As the rendering refines itself that rendering window updates with its progress.
At the top of the rendering window you will find a number of features for collaboration and image manipulation. These include the ability to type an email address to send a collaboration invitation on the live rendered view, white balance settings, exposure control settings, false color rendering, and a reset and save button.
Pressing the false color button allows you to overlay your image with lighting luminance data. You can set the start and end luminance levels you wish to target in the rendering.
The status window provide information about the current state of the rendering, but more importantly how many rendering credits you have used and how many are remaining. More details on how this works later in this review.
When the rendering first starts it will appear very noisy and will quickly refine itself as time elapses. The time it takes to obtain a noise free image will depend on the type of scene and lighting you are using. The main benefit of GPU rendering is the ability to quickly get an overall sense of the lighting and materials without requiring a full render to complete. This allows you to continue to make changes to geometry, lights and materials on the fly while the render window seemlessly updates while you work. When you're happy with the results you need only to let it render to a point you feel you have a usable image and then save the result.
With Bloom Unit, you are limited to the resolution of your screen as your final rendered frame. To render a larger image you simply drag the rendering window to the size you need. There is however an odd behavior with the rendering viewport that defies convention of most rendering applications. It's size can be scaled independently of the the SketchUp viewport, both in size and aspect ratio. This can be a bit confusing when trying to compose a shot precisely, as what you see in frame in the SketchUp windows does not necessarily match that of the rendering window. Hopefully in a future version they will introduce a feature to lock the aspect ratio of the Bloom Unit rendering window so this disconnect does not happen.
Bloom Unit Materials
One of the more challenging parts of getting a realistic image are the materials in your scene. While you can use the built in SketchUp Materials, to leverage the full power of iray's rendering, there is a library of over 300 Bloom Unit materials covering everything from glass and ground covers to concrete and upholstery. Many more materials are being added in the future. Unlike traditional material libraries however these complex and powerful shaders live entirely on the remote server. The materials that you apply in SkethUp are simply proxied representations of the more sophisticated Bloom Unit iray materials that get rendered.
What is interesting about this proxied material library method is that it protects the materials from being manipulated. This opens the door for manufacturers to provide entire libraries of paints, finishes and materials without fear that their products might be misrepresented or reverse engineered. It also facilitates the future addition of an "app store" model for materials. Imagine for example purchasing or renting materials from popular vendors on the fly and without ever having to download or manipulate the assets. That's not to say you can't also create your own materials using their editor, but you won't be able to edit any of the existing proxied materials or upload your own to their servers at this time.
Preview of the Bloom Unit Materials for Brick and Cladding.
Bloom Unit Material Editor to create your own materials if you can't find one from the proxied material libraries.
Bloom Unit Lights
Just like the Bloom Unit materials, lights are also proxied on the server. This means you can insert a low polygon placeholder in SketchUp and have a high res IES light render from the server. The plugin comes with quite a few interior and exterior IES lights from Concord Sylvania, ERCO, Lighting Group and Thorn with plans to add many more manufacturers and lights in the future. You can also make any geometry a light emitting source and these same surfaces can also be textured.
Inside the Light Library, each light comes with manufacturer data and a thumbnail preview of the light. Once inserted into your scene you can also aim the light and, as you iterate through the design process, swap lights out to see how different lights affect the environment. This is a huge benefit to lighting designers wanting to test multiple lighting scenarios and get near instant rendered feedback.
The Bloom Unit Light Library showing the selection of a specific ERCO IES light.
As you can see in this screen shot from the SketchUp viewport, the light proxies also show you the IES pattern to more easily allow you to determine a lights behavior before you render the scene.
Bloom Unit Collaboration and Markup
Using the collaboration functionality within Bloom unit is pretty simple. From the Bloom Unit window within SketchUp, you simply type in the email address of the person you wish to invite to collaborate. The recipient receives an email invite (below) which takes them to a browser window that mirrors your Bloom Unit rendering viewport. No plugins, authentication or any forms required! They see all of the updates you make in real-time and can also make their own markups by drawing on the window.
The team at Bloom Unit created a short commercial of sorts which really show the power of the collaboration component of the application.
Bloom Unit is both a service and a software. There is a SketchUp plugin that you must install (available for PC and soon Mac.) This initial install comes with 1 hour of render credits.
Render credits start counting down after your press the Bloom Unit button and the remote GPUs start processing. As long as the Bloom Unit rendering window is open, your credits are being used in 10 minute increments. This means if you open the window and immediate close it, you'd be billed for 10 minutes. Likewise if you started rendering and you closed the window at 31 minutes you would be billed for 40. Currently you can purchase credits packages with 1, 5, 10, 20, and 40 hour packages, respectively costing $6, $30, $60, $120 and $240.
The time is takes to render a scene is really entirely dependent on the complexity of the scene materials and the type of lighting. An interior scene lit entirely with luminaires might have a usable output in a matter of minutes or seconds, whereas a completely diffuse lit scene with small openings (like the Church of Light example above), might take 5-10 hours. This is not so much a function of Bloom Unit itself, but rather the iray renderer on the back end and the number of GPUs each session is allocated.
At first glance it may appear that rendering with a service like this could be more costly than outsourcing or using internal resources, but really it's a lot more economical than you might think and allows you to use higher quality visualization throughout the design process, rather than just at the end of the processing. It also allows you to iterate more during the design stages and therefore reduce the number of changes required on the final high end imagery that might be done by a visualization specialist.
With SketchUp on the desk of almost every architect and designer in the world, the simplicity of Bloom Unit is a perfect fit. Just as one does not need to be an expert 3d modeler to use SketchUp, you don't need to be a veteran visualization artist to use Bloom Unit. The added bonus of collaboration and markup technology really make this a fantastic application that opens the door wide open to democratize visualization throughout the design process. And not just simple visualization, but high end physically accurate visualization thanks to the array of carefully crafted Bloom Unit material and luminaire libraries.
Over the course of this review, I had a chance to extensively use the application on a number of scenes downloaded from the 3D warehouse. Through that process I compiled my list of Pros and Cons for the application:
- Dead simple rendering. You literally just press the render button. There are no complicated settings (or any settings for that matter).
- Depending upon your scene and resolution fast to moderately fast rendering speeds.
- A large collection of material and lighting libraries.
- No up-front server costs, GPU costs, expensive 3d software licenses, or dedicated visualization artists required. That's potentially a HUGE savings.
- Allows you to iterate more designs throughout the design process at considerably higher quality. You can make design decisions based on actual lights and materials.
- Built-In collaboration tool that is about as simple as it gets. No special mobile device apps, or plugins required for the collaborators.
- Multi-platform (Mac coming soon) and device support.
- Robust platform that will allow manufacturers to provide near infinite libraries or lights, materials, and geometry.
- There is no way to edit the existing materials in the material library and any new materials you create can not be pushed to the server.
- There is currently no batch rendering, so once a rendering is started any changes you make in the SketchUp viewport are reflected in Bloom Unit render output.
- There is no way to tell Bloom Unit when to stop rendering. If you have a simple 20 minute render that you fire off at the end of the day, you'll end up using credits until you turn it off in the morning.
- Because of the iray core, there are issues with luminaires not rendering their actual appearance correctly in some cases.
- Textures are not always translated properly due to the way SketchUp handles textures and can render incorrectly.
- There are some issues around the exposure control when making certain lighting adjustments, but there are workarounds that bypass the issue.
- If there is a server connection loss you can't start rendering where you left off, you have to start over. Nor can you save the image where it left off.
- No way to currently add more GPU resources to a session to decrease render time. Some scenes will take a lot longer to render.
- Switching in and out of false color mode requires the render to restart.
For more information about Bloom Unit, visit: http://www.bloomunit.com
You must be logged in to post a comment. Login here.