Friday, October 16, 2009


I've been using Papervision3D to do all of the augmented reality stuff lately, but when it comes to using 3DS Max (or models generated in any other software for that matter) the Collada / DAE formats are... extremely tricky. Or buggy. Hopefully things I've learned will save people headaches in the future:

1) Do I use Collada or DAE?
Depends, really. Most examples I've seen around the net have a tendency to use the Collada Class when importing static models. But if you have animation, then you'll definately want to use the DAE Class instead; as it has a lot more methods/properties for controlling animation.

I used to use one or the other, but lately I've switched to just using DAE all the time, whether there is animation or not. It's easier.

2) Texture Maps
There seem to be a few ways to handle mapping your textures onto your models. If your texture maps aren't too big, you can generally get away with using the BitmapFileMaterial Class to load your image file externally. If you start running into problems where your model loads before your texture and you get a flatshaded or wireframe model then a few seconds later your material shows up, you'll need to use the FileLoadEvent to create a "preloader" for your material and halt loading your model until the texture is ready.

When you start getting more and more models in the scene, though, trying to handle a bunch of preload events for textures and models is going to get annoying, though. For the purposes of what I've been doing, I've found it to be more efficient just to embed the materials in the Library, assign them a class name, then use the BitmapAssetMaterial to reference the material, load it into a MaterialList, then assign it to the DAE. Then, if you have a classic preloader for your swf, you can just include the library bitmaps in the stuff that gets preloaded.

3) Exporting DAE from 3DS Max
For the sake of ease, I've started using 3DS Max 9 to do all of my DAE exports. The Collada NextGen Exporter for it seems to be the better of the ones between it, 2009 and 2010. That said, it's not perfect. But generally, if you keep these things in mind, you shouldn't have any problems getting your DAEs exported:
  • Name your material in the Material Editor. Nothing complicated, but something you can easily remember.
  • Initial coordinate keyframes. I've consistently run into issues where, for instance, I will animate something, then get it into Flash, and the animation will be running at the 0,0 origin, when in Max, it was up in the air somewhere. Not sure why it happens, it might be an exporter issue. But I've found that if I turn on auto key and set keys for each axis, then it exports fine.
  • DAE Export options.  You should only need 2 - 4. Normals and Triangulate Always. If you have animation, then also check 'Enable Export' and 'Sample Animation' for a set number of frames.
  • Manually tweak the .DAE file.  Once you've exported the .dae, you'll need to open it in a Text Editor. Do a Ctrl+f and search for "_1".  This is appended to the end of all of your material files for some reason. Not sure why. So I go in and kill 'em.  If you have animations in your file, then also search for "animation" and you should see a node called "Library_Animation" and an "Animation" node under that.  You need to add an id attribute to the animation tag, so just add in id="whatever" and then save and close.

If I come across something else that annoys me, I'll post. :)

Ares I-X NASA Exhibit

So earlier yesterday I recieved an email that the AR piece I did for the MyExploration site was incorporated into a lobby exhibit at NASA-HQ in Washington D.C. They sent me a few pics to show me what the results of the setup was! Very cool!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Augmented Reality - Tools

So let's talk Augmented Reality. I mentioned in my previous, introductory post that I was doing some creative flash work for NASA; and more specifically, did a 1 week rush to quickly adapt the Ares I-X project into a simple Melts-in-your-eyes-not-in-your-hand presentation of the rocket that is being launched. 

And while it's nothing "new" to the world of Flash-based Augmented Reality, it certainly was fun to do. And, surprisingly, very easy. But now what I want to do is to record my experience so that, as I progress onto more engaging productions, I can have something to refer back to.

FLARToolKit :: So, if you've done any research into Augmented Reality via the Flash Platform, you've likely come across a wealth of information on the FLARToolKit. And while I won't really indulge in a historical study, all that's really important to know about it is that it's the Flash adaptation of the ARToolKit, which performs the magic of using your computer's webcam to track specific marker patterns.

The FLARToolKit will be the base of any Flash Augmented Reality piece. At least those that aren't using some proprietary 3rd party software. Just using the libraries that come with the ToolKit, you can build any single-marker Augmented Reality piece you can think of. I only used the FLARToolKit and some self-built AS3 libraries to build the Ares I-X piece, as well as a few other more interactive prototypes that I'll be posting later.

FLARManager :: The FLARManager extends the functionality of the FLARToolKit, making marker managment more easily controlled through xml docs. It also allows for multi-marker tracking, which hosts some pretty awesome possibilities. I started using the FLARManager on the project I am currently working on, which is going to be an Augmented Reality representation of the results of the LCROSS Mission.

There's 1 immediate difference I have found between using just the base FLARToolKit vs the FLARManager, and that's performance. I went back, just for kicks, and switched out how the Ares I-X was loading, and got a very big FPS increase. Almost 4x, actually.

Marker Generator :: Tarotaro's Marker Generator has been what I use to get my marker patterns converted to .pat. There's also a few AIR apps that you can use to hold your marker up to the webcam and capture the pattern, but tarotaro's lets you just load your image files directly into the generator and manually adjust your resolution and pattern% settings; so the results are presumably better. If not, then it's certainly easier. ;) And it's web-based, so if you don't like downloading things it's perfect for you.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

An Introduction

So, since I've started working at Media Fusion, I've had a great deal of giddy laughter to hide under my desk at the musing that I am actually getting paid to do what I do.

I've done Flash development for a few years, mostly in the E-Learning arena, with strict guidelines and adherence to clients who thought they knew what they wanted (15 revisions ago) who never quite grasp onto the fact that they are working with a collective group of designers and developers who, given the freedom, could very easily create interesting and engaging user experiences without all the frustration. ...But I digress; Now I work for a Multimedia company that has the reputation it needs with clients to get that creative freedom.

Case in point. The project/contract that I work on is for a very well-known organization, maybe you've heard of them? The National Aeronautics and Space Administration? ...No? ..err, NASA? Yeeeaaah, see? Thought so. So, by show of hands, who all wanted to be an astronaut when they were a kid? Yeah, me too. And guess what. I'm totally closer than evar!

So, what's the big deal, you ask? Aside from totally working for NASA (which, categorically, has to put me somewhere close to being a rocket scientist), I'm not here to just create simple websites: I'm here to EXPERIMENT! Oh, yes, my friends. Experimentation. Which, somewhat unfortunately, combined with my close proximity to rocket scientist, shifts me into the category of Mad Scientist. But I'm fine with that.

So what does a person who experiments with web technologies for NASA really do? Well, I've only been here for a few weeks, but so far there has been a pretty positive response to the Augmented Reality experiments I've been working on. I did a really quick one the first week I was here as kind of a proving-grounds sort of experiment. It's actually live on a NASA website now, called MyExploration, hidden behind the guise of 3DV. And in response to the latest LCROSS mission, where we blasted the moon, I'm actually doing a more interactive AR to let people hold the crater, Centaur rocket modules, and the LRO satellite in their hands and possibly see the dusty particles that were kicked up and show some of the delicious insides of the moon that we found.

So, there. My ranting introduction. And all that to say 'Hi, my name is Michael. I'm a Flash Developer for Media Fusion/NASA. I play with Web technologies. I build Augmented Reality. I wrestle with Social Networks. And I want to share my experiences with you.