Uniform rendering

The multidisciplinary UK studio reveals how professional hardware helps it create playful architectural visualizations, pioneering AR experiences, and generally put the fun back into technology.

Uniform is one of the UK's leading creative studios: just not one that slots neatly into traditional pigeonholes. Having become known in the 2000s for its ground-breaking architectural visualizations, which brought techniques from visual effects and advertising to the property market, the company's work now encompasses branding, animation, interactive design and new technology.

Below, co-founder and Creative Director Nick Bentley and Associate Creative Director Mark Lee reveal how this mixture of skill-sets helps Uniform create playfully rule-breaking solutions to clients' problems, while Senior Designer Rob Deja discusses the professional graphics hardware that powers the studio's work in visualization, brand design, and most recently, augmented reality (AR).

 

How did Uniform get started?

Nick Bentley: We started in 1998. The three founders – myself, Nick Howe and Pete Thomas – were all at university together studying product design. We started up a studio with the intention of becoming product designers, but we didn't have any cash, so we started doing little bits of interior design, and through that, we got started creating 3D visuals to communicate our ideas.

From 2000 onwards, we started to grow the team with a real focus on architectural visualization. That continued until 2008 when property took a big hit during the global financial crisis. We'd always had a capacity to do brand and design work, but that was the point when we made a concerted decision to diversify the markets we worked in beyond property and architecture.

At that point, the two parts of the business, visualization and branding, started to become more equal in focus. Since then, the team has grown, and we're now at about 55 people, working across brand strategy and design, film and animation, and digital and immersive work.

Nick from Uniform

Nick Bentley

Uniform - Mark Lee

Mark Lee

Uniform - Rob Deja

Rob Deja

What are your strengths as a studio?

NB: That diversity of skills. Having all of that expertise in one room works well for brainstorming with clients. Some really interesting solutions come out of those sessions because people are coming at them from completely different backgrounds.

The downside is that in the past, we've had potential clients coming to us and going, 'So what is it you guys do?' It's a very broad offering. Which is why, in the last six months, we've made the architectural visualization and the design innovation two distinct offers on our website.


How does the work you do break down between the two areas?

NB: It's probably about 40% architectural visualization (arch viz) and 60% design innovation, which includes brand strategy, web and app development, film and animation, and creative technology.


Uniform rendering
Uniform rendering

Do staff work across both areas?

NB: The visualization artists spend 90% of their time working for visualization clients. But they can sometimes get involved if the brand team is working on a piece of packaging.

Mark Lee: For example, we designed the official Mitre® footballs used in all of the UK [professional soccer] leagues apart from the Premiership. For the brand team, having to design a sphere in Adobe® Illustrator® and get everything lined up seamlessly is mind-blowing, but we can put the designs straight into 3D software. And as well as visualizing balls, we've been doing packaging and point-of-sale stuff, so we have something nice and slick to wow Mitre when they come round.

NB: We set up a VR space so the client could come in during that development process, put on a headset, and pick up the different ball designs. It's virtual prototyping. Previously they were getting physical mock-ups made, but that's quite expensive, and much slower.


In visualization, Uniform is well known for its film work. When did that begin?

NB: Around 2006. At that point, most people working in architectural visualization were just doing predictable flythroughs of buildings: it was always one, lengthy continuous camera path. We wanted to create something that felt more like a real film, so we started using shorter sequences with locked-off cameras, replicating shots that you could achieve in reality.

We were also looking at TV commercials, and the effects that were being used in them, and we wanted to inject some of those techniques into architectural visualization. One of our most well known projects was for London’s most icon building, ‘The Shard’, with its architecturally striking design.

ML: It was the element of realism: dust and particles in the air, depth of field, and motion blur that we concentrated on as a studio. Adding real-world ‘defects’ expanded that extra level of believability for the viewer.

NB: We also started integrating CG with live action: in helicopter shots, integrating CG elements into that live-action backplate, or with greenscreen, integrating bits of live action into the CG. Those kinds of effects were exciting and challenging at the time. Nowadays, they're a bit easier to do, and more commonly done. There are now a wealth of technical tutorials out there explaining how to create complex visual effects in software, but the art of story telling remains key for us at Uniform and allowed us to build a strong Arch Viz reputation.


Uniform rendering
Uniform rendering
Uniform photo

You also do a lot of playful R’n’D technology projects. How do those feed into commercial jobs?

NB: A lot of those things, like Walter Melon and the cricket wicket tracker, are self-initiated projects. Partly they're done to satisfy our inquisitiveness about how we can use technology to connect the physical and digital world in interesting ways. But quite often, they get picked up in the press, and then they can lead to actual briefs.

For example, we did a project a few years ago called the Postcard Player. People don't really get anything tangible when they buy music any more, so it was an attempt to reconnect music to the physical world. It's a little box with a series of postcards printed using conductive ink. Each one represents a different album. You put a postcard into the player, then touch the buttons printed on the card – Play, Stop, Pause – to play the relevant track.

Off the back of that, Bacardi® (known for its white rum) got in touch to ask if we could integrate that kind of technology into bottle designs at the point of sale. And we worked on a poster for Coca-Cola® using conductive ink.

It's something that we recognize is useful to us, because it opens up conversations with clients we might not otherwise have. We have two people working full-time on creative technology, and these projects are actually part of their job description.

What software do you use in production?

NB: On the visualization side, it's fairly standard stuff: Autodesk® 3ds Max®, Chaos Group V-Ray, Corona Renderer, Adobe Photoshop®, Adobe After Effects®, Blackmagic Fusion, Premiere Pro, and a whole bunch of plugins – as well as RailClone and Forest Pack, we're starting to use SiNi [Software's tools] much more. Most of these plugins allow us to automate repetitive arch viz tasks, and improve upon the standard tools included with the software. We use the OpenCL™ hardware acceleration in Adobe products and Fusion with our GPU’s.

The immersive guys are using Unreal Engine and Unity, plus bits of three.js if we're integrating content into a WebGL environment. The brand team use the standard Adobe Creative Cloud tools [like Photoshop, Illustrator and After Effects]. The film team use MAXON Cinema 4D as well.

What kinds of workstations do your artists use?

NB: The design, branding and creative technology teams all use Apple Macs for their work: mainly iMac workstations with Retina displays, although several also have MacBook Pro laptops. [ Both the iMac and the 15” MacBook Pro feature a Radeon™ Pro discrete GPU. The MacBook Pro have 4GB of GDDR5 memory as standard combining “impressive power and remarkable power efficiency.” ]

ML: The PC workstations have Intel® Core™ i9-7960X CPU, with 128GB of system RAM, running Windows® 10 , combined with a Samsung 970 Pro 1TB M.2 Solid-State Drive (SSD).

 

What challenges do the AMD GPUs in your Mac workstations face?

NB: Working with big Adobe Photoshop® files. We do quite a lot with Liverpool Football Club, so if we're working on a Liverpool campaign, there might be images due to be printed on billboards and hoardings that need retouching. Those files can be 4-5GB in size and roughly 25000 pixels in resolution. From a pure grunt point of view, that's one of the biggest challenges. Like Fusion, a number of key Photoshop features are OpenCL™ hardware accelerated which allows the iMacs to push around the very large files using the GPU.

[ You can read more about how Adobe’s creative software makes use of AMD graphics here: ]

Uniform rendering

How do you decide whether to render a job in V-Ray or Corona?

NB: Artist preference. We've used V-Ray for longer, so we often use the CPU version for bigger, more complex projects. But there are a lot of similarities, particularly now that V-Ray [developer Chaos Group  ] has bought Corona. It seems easier than ever to switch a render between the two.

 

What hardware do your visualisation team use?

NB: The 3D artists' workstations are all PCs, mostly because of key software only being PC based. At the minute, that means an Intel® i9 CPU, 128GB of RAM. Our graphics cards all have 8GB GDDR5 memory.

However, the guys are excited about AMD's new “Zen” core CPU architecture as a low-power, high-performance solution. They think it offers a good price-to-performance ratio.

[ You can read more about Zen core here: ]

Rob Deja: When we recently evaluated a machine using an AMD Ryzen Threadripper™ 1950X CPU, AMD Radeon™ Pro WX 9100 GPU and 64GB of RAM, we found that the rendering speed was typically 10-15% faster in V-ray than our existing workstations. On simpler scenes, could be up to 20% faster, which was impressive.

Uniform rendering

What challenges do the processors in your 3D workstations face?

NB: The main challenge is scene management. Over the years, we've been working on bigger and bigger scenes – if everything is in one file, it might be 6-7GB, although we can split things up into more manageable chunks using [3ds Max's] XRefs – and unlike the old days of having to model buildings from 2D CAD drawings, we're usually provided with 3D geometry from Autodesk® Revit® or Rhino (McNeel Rhinoceros) models.

Take the work we've done on Greenwich Peninsula. We've been working on the project for three years, and it's a huge masterplan, representing a 20-year vision to transform a 150-acre area of London. As each part of the scheme is designed, we create new sets of imagery to show those areas, but we usually also have to show the peninsula as a whole. Just trying to get that amount of geometry working well requires a lot of scene management. We don't want to sit around waiting for viewports to update: we want to be able to make the changes necessary to get the best results.

 

What's the turnaround time for a job like Greenwich Peninsula?

NB: Around eight to twelve weeks for each of the districts, which might involve creating 15 still images and a film of 2 minutes. We typically have four people working on a job that size at any time.

I don't feel that turnaround times have changed significantly over the years. It's just that the quality of the end result is better.

Uniform rendering

What do you see as the current trends in the industry?

NB: It's much easier to make stuff look photoreal. Everyone can do that these days. So managing to capture the vision of the architect is more important than ever: capturing a mood, or an atmosphere, or evoking a sense of emotion. It's more important to have your work stand out from the crowd.

A good example of this is the Greenwich Peninsula work we discussed earlier. This project could of easily been photoreal, but its final style was much more memorable and emphasized a key message in the project.

It also feels like virtual reality has been on the cusp of mass uptake for quite a while, although there are still some barriers in place. They're mainly technological – not having a VR headset is a barrier to being able to engage with the content – but it can still be difficult to persuade clients of its value.

 

 

What proportion of your jobs currently involve VR work?

NB: Around 20-30%, although it's usually 360-degree imagery rather than 'proper' real-time VR. But that kind of stereoscopic content is still a useful way to communicate scale in a space.

 

What about augmented reality?

NB: We've just done a big AR project for Harrow Council in London. It's an interactive map, intended to communicate the benefits of a big redevelopment of the area to local residents in an engaging way. It's another good example of a project that crosses over between the visualization team, the brand team and the immersive team.

People from all three teams came up with ideas for how the map could look, the layers of information we could embed into it, and how we could inject a sense of fun. Working from those concepts, the visualization team built assets in 3ds Max and rendered style tests in V-Ray, while the brand guys were working on the printed piece that residents would use as a target. Those assets all went off to Unity, where we built the app that brought everything together.

The project has been well received, and has just been nominated for one of CGarchitect's Architectural 3D Awards [sponsored by AMD.]. The ability to do things like that is very new, and it's exciting.

Our solution was to use AR (augmented reality) to bring the vision to life in 3D. Combining the technology with a physical paper map of the town it gives the experience multiple layers of information to explore. By mixing traditional, physical communication with technology allows the story to be told in an intuitive way.

When the user holds their phone or tablet over the physical map, it showcases the benefits of each development - things quite literally come to life as you’re looking at it from kids on skateboards to oversized tea cups to hearing the buzz of each of the areas. The user can select one of four developments and can explore the form and features themselves. As well as being very interactive the app also features a voice-over narrative from Game of Thrones actress Indira Varma to help guide the user through the story.

The AR functionality and the bright, bold design project make this an exciting tool for the Council to get people excited about their wider programme, 'Building a Better Harrow'. They shared the AR map at the MIPIM Property Festival in Cannes in March 2018 at the London Pavilion as well as at the Digital Showcase at the UK Pavilion, one of a handful of pieces selected as innovative ways of using AR to communicate places.

harrow3dmap.com

 


 

Looking to the future, Uniform continue to push the boundaries of creative design and technology. Refusing to follow what is expected for architectural visualisation, whilst always ensuring playfulness is at the heart of their memorable projects.

You can keep up to date with Uniform’s latest work on Instagram @uniform_av

Footnotes

DISCLAIMER:

All imagery and animations supplied by Uniform Communications.

Uniform is a valued customer of AMD. The views of Uniform are their own opinions and may not represent AMD’s positions, strategies or opinions. Any benchmarks or performance statements from Uniform have not been verified by AMD. Links to third party sites are provided for convenience and unless explicitly stated, AMD is not responsible for the contents of such linked sites and no endorsement is implied.  GD-5

©2018 Advanced Micro Devices, Inc.  All rights reserved. AMD, the AMD Arrow logo, Ryzen, Threadripper, Radeon and combinations thereof are trademarks of Advanced Micro Devices, Inc.  Other product names used in this publication are for identification purposes only and may be trademarks of their respective companies. GD-28