Obvioos: Immersive Experiences for Real-time Archviz
When it comes to architecture visualization, we are used to seeing 2D high-resolution render images with limited interactions. For the past couple of months, we have seen more and more real-time experiences that allow you to interact and move around in an immersive discovery of space and materials.
With this user story, we get the chance to talk to Christophe Robert, co-founder of Obvioos, who accepted the challenge to use the real-time technologies coming from game industry and apply them to architecture over a wide range of projects from apartments to offices.
Who are you?
Christophe Robert and Thierry Roux, co-founders of Obvioos.
Where are you based?
We are based in Lille, France.
What do you do?
We are an architectural visualization company focused on real-time rendering.
Hi Christophe, thanks for taking the time for this interview! Can you tell us more about yourself?
My name is Christophe Robert, I am a French 3D artist and entrepreneur. I graduated from illustration and 3D schools in France and more recently from the Stanford Center for Professional Development.
I have spent the last 15 years working in architectural visualization. For the last 10 years, I ran an architectural visualization company as co-founder and CEO. I was given the chance to manage a fantastic 3D team (love you guys) and work with top-notch architectural firms all around the world.
My business partner, Thierry Roux, has also a strong architectural visualization background as he has been in the business for 10 years. He worked for me as a 3D artist on some of our toughest projects, including the world’s biggest shopping mall in China.
When did you start Obvioos, and what were your motivations behind it?
Thierry and I started Obvioos approximately one year ago. We had at least 10 years in architectural visualization each. We thought it was time to disrupt the way people do architectural visualization.
Thierry had already done some visualizations with Unreal Engine, and honestly, it was jawbreaking. He asked me if I could help him for one of his next projects and, of course, I accepted. I had to learn Unreal Engine on the fly and this is how we start working together.
After this first project came another and then another one. As we received amazing feedback from our clients and from the user community we decided to create Obvioos for good…and here we are now.
Today, our main motivation is to provide top quality, challenge ourselves and work on projects we love all around the world.
So far, you guys are two people: how is it for such a small company to think on a global scale?
Indeed, we are a very young and small company. Nevertheless, we have a strong experience in architectural visualization. In our last work experiences, we worked on greats projects for world-class architecture and real estate companies such as Zaha Hadid, S.O.M, H.O.K….
This strong experience helped us a lot for getting our first clients at Obvioos. It sounds like a paradox, but being small also helped us a lot in entering the market. When your company is young, it is the perfect time for taking risks as you have nothing to lose. Something I learned from Stanford University is to think big and, if needed, fail fast. This is exactly what we do now.
Last but not least, it is now super easy to work worldwide as there are many online tools allowing you to work remotely.
You heavily relied on the Substance toolset for your latest creations: do you remember how you discovered it, and why you decided to switch to this solution for texturing?
I discovered Substance a few months ago from Adan Martin’s video tutorials. This guy is really amazing as he seems to understand in depth how software is meant to be used. I literally spent days watching his Youtube channel. (my wife thought I was learning Spanish…).
We also heard many good things about Substance from our friends at Hocus Pocus Studio.
So at first I only tried to create a simple concrete material and was so happy with the result I decided to learn the software and switch to Substance for our next projects.
Before I knew Substance, I spent a lot of time in Unreal, trying to create an interactive shader using instance materials. So basically trying to create an embryo of Substance Designer. The result was not so bad but it was quite a mess to deal with so many nodes. (example below)
As the concept of instance material is quite the same as for creating a Substance material, it was really easy to switch from one to another. Now we mix the best of these two worlds for our projects.
What would you say Substance brings to your workflow, compared to previous solutions?
First, Substance simplifies and brings flexibility to our workflow. We no longer have to deal with dozens of variations of the same textures as a Substance material allows us to virtually create an infinite number of textures of the same type. As the plugin is available for every software we use (Unreal, 3ds Max…), we had no pain switching to Substance.
Another noticeable improvement in our workflow was the ability to add very subtle aging effects to our materials. In architectural visualization world, everything has to be as clean as possible. So clean it can sometimes be unrealistic. That’s sad but that’s how it is. I mean, most of the time, architects laugh at you when you try to add dirt, stains or leaks to your materials. As Substance uses a PBR workflow, it is possible for us to add subtle aging effects in any of our materials (using normal channel, grunge generator, etc.). This way you keep your materials clean but you are able to just add a little dose of realism into it. To me, it is much more difficult to remove lights and shadows from a bitmap file in order to have a clean albedo to start with.
We have recently seen a growing interest in our products in the archviz industry: in your experience, what do you think the Substance tools can bring to architecture visualization professionals?
Architectural rendering is a very specific branch of 3D rendering. To me, the rules are different compared to visual effects or video game creation. Most of the time you have to deal with super tight deadlines (most of the time, one to three weeks from the first brief to delivery), small teams and a very chaotic work environment.
Before I started working in architecture, 15 years ago, I thought architects were super skilled in terms of project management. At first, you expect to work peacefully from Autocad files fixed in stone for people amazed by a simple ray traced shadow on a teapot.
Reality is different: everything changes constantly until the last minute and your clients are expecting you to deliver at least the same level of quality as the special effects of the last Star Wars movie - not to mention the price they are willing to pay :)
We saw a lot of mindblowing demos on the web, but most of the time, people have time to spend on their creations. They can spend 2 days for a single wood texture. However, most of the users have to work in the rush. that’s what we call ‘the real world’.
So, flexibility is the key to survive. And, as far as I know, Substance is really good at being flexible when it comes to dealing with materials.
Let’s say you are working on a concrete material. With a good Substance, you can create tons of variations of your concrete material. In real time. No need to go search the web for textures, make them tile, create normal maps etc. You just have to expose the right parameter when you create your Substance material and here you go.
In architectural rendering, you deal 80% of time with the same kind of materials (concrete, wood, painted metal… and tons of different types of brick when you work in the north of France ;)). So, with a small set of Substance textures, you are ready to face 80% of your client’s needs.
How do you see the archviz market evolving? Which trends are you observing?
I’m sure we are at the beginning of a new era. For years, architectural visualization was only made using pre-calc rendering engines. I think we reached the top of this technology as it is now possible to create amazing renderings with photorealistic lights, materials, vegetation etc. However, pre-calc pipelines will never be able to produce interactive content, but real time engines will.
So, to me, the next step for the market is to switch to real-time engines and push their quality to a photorealistic level. Even the best photorealistic still render doesn’t give you half the same feeling as putting on a virtual reality headset and starting to visit a virtual building. Honestly, it is a huge challenge as our clients don't mind about technology. They think everybody can deliver the same quality as for an AAA video game in a one-week production. No matter how big the challenge is, as a technology enthusiast, I want to be a part of this revolution!
What are your favorite features in Substance Painter/Substance Designer and which ones would you like to see in the future?
What we love in Substance is more the community rather than any technical feature ;). I mean, it is really easy to learn how to use the software thanks to all the tutorials you can find online.
Of course, the last versions are amazing in terms of quality. Only a few months ago I thought procedural rendering was only intended to create colorful fractal designs for hippie t-shirts. ;)
The feature I love in Substance is the ability to create editable Substance textures. At first, I was afraid to spend a lot of time to create a Substance library as big as our bitmap library. Hundreds of high-quality textures gathered in years of patience. But, in fact, one Substance you create fits a lot of your needs. You don’t need to have 50 different brick textures as with a good Substance material, you can create hundreds of them (including normal maps, ambient occlusions etc.)
Something I would really love to see in the future is the ability to create large scale textures easily. Most of the jawbreaking Substance materials I love don’t fit a large surface. Unfortunately, in architectural rendering, most of the time you have to cover a large surface and you don’t have the ability to use dirt maps in order to “break” the tiles. So I wish I could be able to seamlessly tile my Substance textures with a new seed for each tile, without having to cut my mesh in order to create new UV sets. Sounds like a real nightmare in terms of memory consumption but I think it could be possible using a good virtual texturing technology.
Another feature I’d love to see is a runtime baker (for curvature maps for instance). This way, I could be able to create a Substance material that fits any geometry directly within the 3D engine.
Your recent Duplex in Paris project is very interesting. Can you describe your workflow on this project and how did Substance integrate into it?
The Duplex in Paris is one of our latest projects for French Real Estate developer Nacarat. We had some constraints in this project as it is intended to be used for both high-res renderings and video but also for VR walkthrough on HTC Vive. So we had to keep the model as simple as possible in order to keep the 90 fps frame rate required by the HTC Vive. Being able to change Substance resolution in one click greatly helped in managing memory consumption.
As always, for this kind of project, we only started with a short brief from the client and an Autocad floor plan of the apartment. From this point, we started using Substance Designer for our materials creation. As we know every material could change from one day to another, working with Substance instead of bitmaps is much more comfortable. We used both in-house Substance materials and other ones from the Substance Source website.
We worked approximately 2 weeks on this projects and every day we sent a walkthrough video to our client in order for him to send us feedbacks. As an example, during these 2 weeks, we sent nearly one hour of video in order to adjust every detail until the last day. ;)
As expected, changes were made easy as we were able to edit various parameters directly from Unreal Engine.
Are there some techniques in Substance Painter/Substance Designer you would like to share with the archviz community?
When you start using Substance, most of the examples you find on the Internet can be really intimidating. At the very beginning, we found some crazy Substance materials with tons and tons of connected nodes. But after playing with the software we realized we can have pretty good results very quickly. So I’d like to demonstrate how fast and simple it can be to create a very basic Substance material in a few clicks.
For instance when you have just downloaded the demo and you want an instant result. This Substance will be available on the Substance Source website as a starting point for you to experiment.
Let’s say you want to create a very simple concrete material:
First, you start by creating the base color of your material and you set some of your material’s attributes (such as Roughness or Height value). If you already played with 3ds Max’s slate editor or Unreal’s material editor, you will certainly feel at home.
Then you can start mixing different procedural maps in order to create your material. In the example below, I mix my base color with a procedural “grunge map”. It’s quite the same concept as adding a layer in Photoshop and change its fusion mode.
One super cool thing you should know is that every procedural texture can be regenerated anytime with a new “seed”. For instance, I can create tons of variation of my grunge texture. Each one will be unique.
Then you mix other procedural maps (or bitmap textures) until you are happy with the result.
Follow the same process in order to generate the other passes (normal, roughness etc.).
That’s it. Your first Substance material is done in less than 5 minutes. Definitely not the best concrete material in the world. Nevertheless, based on this super simple Substance material you can do as many variations as you want (in resolutions up to 8k).
Is there an archviz studio or artist that inspires you? Why?
Of course, we are inspired by many talented people. To us, the rockstars in architectural visualization are Mir. They have a unique talent for architectural visualization. Everything they do is perfect in terms of colors, composition, and storytelling.
For short, we are fans.
Concerning realtime archviz, we are also super impressed by the work of UE4Arch. To be honest, Rafael Reis had a great impact on our choice to start working with Unreal Engine. (Os meus parabéns, Rafael!)
We also want to be as open-minded as possible as inspiration is everywhere. So, we love to think out of the archviz box as much as we can. This includes movies, music, and comics of course but also gardening, cooking, and DJing, among other things.