Silicon scripts set scene for pioneers of digital design

Glasgow School of Art and the University of Glasgow are preparing designers for the next millennium with the opening of a new studio, Claire Neesham reports.

If you follow the signs for "The House for an Art Lover" in Glasgow's Bellahouston Park you will find a winding driveway that meanders towards an impressive large white house overlooking the parkland. The house looks as if it has been there for ever. Further investigation reveals, however, that the house is not all it seems. The plans for the property were drawn up in 1901 by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, but the house itself was not built until the 1990s when a local philanthropist paid for its construction.

In the attic of the House for an Art Lover there is a seal bouncing a ball on its nose. The ball bounces away from the seal, and the seal looks sad. But this is no cause for real concern because like the house, the seal is not all that it seems. It is a set of complex algebraic equations held in the memory of a Silicon Graphics two-processor Octane. This small supercomputer is one of the tools installed in Glasgow School of Art's digital design studio, located on the top floor of The House of the Art Lover.

The studio opened at the start of the academic year. Ian Johnston, a senior lecturer who works in the studio, explains that the school's aim in setting it up was to provide a centre of design excellence based around digital technologies.

The studio boasts an array of hardware and software. Silicon Graphics supplied hardware and its subsidiary Alias|Wavefront provided copies of its Maya 3D design tools. The studio's partnerships with these companies give it access to the latest technologies. There are also graphics and video-editing applications from Softimage and Avid.

Johnston explains that from the outset the aim of the studio was to promote inquiry that was at the leading edge. "That is why we selected the Silicon Graphics hardware and the Alias|Wavefront design tools."

He says that these suppliers were seen to offer the state of the art in 3D design and animation technologies.

The digital design studio is organised into three sections: education, training and research. The first intake of MPhil students in 2D/3D motion graphics and virtual prototyping are nearing the end of the first year of their two-year course.

Training programmes are being developed that will demonstrate the capability of 3D digital technologies, network administration and sound manipulation to small and medium-sized companies in the Glasgow area.

Research, which will underpin the studio's other activities, is also beginning to get under way. The studio is working with the Ford Motor Company on a number of projects. Its director Paul Anderson recently visited Ford's headquarters in Detroit. Then there is the Virtual Design Institute, a collaboration with Glasgow, Strathclyde and Glasgow Caledonian universities which will have the remit of enhancing the interface between designer and computer and developing the next generation of digital tools.

Regardless of organisational distinctions, the MPhil students are expected to be aware of the studio's research and commercial interests. "We want the students to be interested in all aspects of the studio," says Johnston. He believes 3D design will become increasingly important for manufacturers, which can use the technology to create and test virtual prototypes. He adds that the skills of 3D designers will be courted by the entertainment industry. BBC Resources Scotland, among many others, has given its support to the studio.

The postgraduates have already produced their first virtual film sets. Johnston and colleague Chris Rowland were pleased with the results. The projects included a set suitable for a production of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, complete with a rotating desk fan drawing in smoke from a cigarette, and an interior view of Badger's den from The Wind in the Willows.

Johnston and Rowland point out, however, that the amount of work the students have put into their designs is not conveyed by the few minutes of digital images. Johnston says that the Alias| Wavefront software they use in their work is complex and can take many months to master. Rowland, who has spent almost ten years working with this kind of software, confirms this point. He adds that it is not necessary for the users of these packages to become programmers or have prior programming knowledge.

This is important for the digital design studio because it has a policy of recruiting graduates from a broad range of disciplines. The ten students coming to the end of their first year include a marine engineer, a photographer, a painter and a psychology graduate as well as product designers, a marketing graduate and a computer scientist. "We are interested in getting different points of view," says Johnston.

During the two-year MPhil these students are expected to develop these skills while sitting in rows at their Pounds 12,000 workstations comprising Silicon Graphics O2 computers, lavish graphics packages and Fast Ethernet networking. Their work environment looks like a film set, and the students have the opportunity to work with the latest audio and video production technologies, as well as 2D and 3D design tools.

At the end of the course Johnston and Rowland believe their graduates will be highly employable. Johnston admits that not all the students can hope to walk into jobs where they will have access to such high specification and leading edge technology as they have become accustomed to. But he says that many of the 3D design packages that run on Macintoshes and PCs are subsets of products such as those from Alias|Wavefront and SoftImage. Students will be familiar with these complex packages, making it easy for them to master packages which have fewer features but work in a similar way.

Johnston and Rowland are confident that their graduates will benefit from the commercial research taking place in the studio - research that suggests that manufacturing and entertainment companies have a strong interest in 3D design, and presumably 3D designers. They add that the emphasis that the masters programme puts on developing original ideas should also put the students in a strong position when applying for jobs.

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