By Jon Jordan

November 18th 2008 at 3:20PM

XSI's position in the market place means that it has to work hard to differentiate itself from the competition - which is exactly what ICE, its new visual interface for artists, is about...

Softimage has always been something of a niche operator, with XSI battling for attention among the more numerous seats of 3ds Max and Maya. Now, however, the company is up against Autodesk’s combined Max, Maya, Mudbox and MotionBuilder 800lb behemoth. Indeed, Autodesk reckons it has around 90 per cent of the games market when it comes to 3D art packages.

So if you can’t compete on scale, you have to compete on innovation. But according to product marketing manager, Leonard Teo, Softimage isn’t just looking to compete when it comes to the current level of technology. Its tactics are more forward-looking.

“We’re shifting from being a 3D application and DCC company to becoming more of a platform company. That’s a huge shift and it’s going to be a great differentiating factor in the future, because studios need to build their own custom solutions and they need open frameworks to be able to build their pipelines,” he explains.

This might sound like marketing spiel but there are several initiatives backing up such talk. For one thing, Teo says Softimage often comes into contact with game studios that have spent so much time and energy building custom tools using Maya’s MEL script or MAXscript that they’re several versions adrift of the current releases, because they can’t manage the migration process. The XSI solution is to advise use of Collada.

“I want to stress our commitment to Collada because there are so many benefits in using a completely open architecture. It’s XML-based, fully documented, and not owned by any private companies so you can build an effective pipeline and tools using it and plug it into any package that supports the file format,” Teo enthuses. “We are seeing an increasing amount of people standardise on it.”

Another focus point for Softimage is the hard work that’s been carried out to ensure XSI supports multi-threading. “It’s a key differentiating factor,” Teo says. “We’re moving towards a homogenised computing resource model where your PC will have hundreds of cores, and current applications just won’t be able to use that power. We’re already over twice as fast as the competition when it comes to things like the million particle test and that’s because XSI scales with the number of available cores.”

The main reason that Softimage thinks its future as a platform company is bright, however, is its new approach to artist workflow. Called Interactive Creative Environment (ICE), it’s an integral part of the most recent XSI 7 release, and one that seeks to bridge the gap between the ways artists work and the increasingly technical nature of that work.

“We have highly visual people working with tools that are overly technical. Maya, Max and XSI are technical packages and this creates a rift between the artists and the technical directors,” Teo points out. “Most artists don’t want to learn scripting but they do want more control over what they’re doing.”

Defined as a node-based visual programming language that enables you to quickly and easily extend what you can do with XSI, ICE effectively replaces XSI’s API, although the first iteration, as seen in XSI 7, is focused purely on particles and deformation.

“With the first release of ICE, we decided to target particles and deformation, and lots of companies, especially in terms of post production, are finding a lot of value in that,” says Teo. “But the easter egg we released for Siggraph was the ICE Kinematics. That’s what’s coming and it’s the next generation of animation.”

Expected (but not promised) for XSI 7.5, which is due in spring 2009, ICE Kinematics is the brainchild of Philip Taylor, who created the CAT character animation plug-in for 3ds Max. “We bought CAT because we wanted Phil’s brain in terms of how animation should work,” ends Teo. “ICE Kinematic will be a big shock for the industry.”