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GDC Sponsor Q&A: SideFX's Mai Ao on World-Building With Houdini

At GDC 2022, attendees will have the opportunity to interact with an array of sponsors who help fuel the game industry. As you plan your sessions schedule and GDC Expo tour, be sure to check out the offerings from our sponsors who play a key role to the success of GDC 2022.

To give you a better sense of what the expect from the show and our partner SideFX, we got in touch with Mai Ao, lead technical artist at SideFX Labs, to find out more about Houdini tools and how they can help studios advance their collaboration and next-gen game development.

Could you please introduce yourself and your role at SideFX?

Hello! My name is Mai Ao (pronounced like: my ow). I am the lead technical artist at SideFX Labs. I worked on real-time projects in collaboration with Walt Disney Imagineering and Industrial Light & Magic. Some folks may have heard of me from the latest versions of Houdini's vertex animation and pyro flipbook tools I built last year.

SideFX Labs is a small team of currently four technical artists. We build and maintain a library of hundreds of Houdini tools called Labs tools, which are aimed at addressing real-time production needs and improving the quality of life for developers in general. We recognize there is the perception that Houdini is hard to learn, so we want to do our bit to make it easier for people, to make the "magic" more accessible, so to speak. It's quite incredible to be a part of this team. The colleagues who came before me have earned the respect of many developers in the community and I can only hope to do the same.

And a little bit about myself... I have lived in four different countries. I love paintings, algorithms, films, animals, and the outdoors. Liverpool FC supporter. I did years of math Olympiad training when I was younger, which probably subconsciously played a part in my obsession with finding interesting angles to solve hard problems. I'm a completionist gamer. Dragon Age is my favourite game series because of the story. When will the fourth one come out Bioware, please? It's been 84 years, haha. 

What’s the most exciting thing SideFX is looking forward to presenting at GDC?

On behalf of the SideFX Labs team, I will be presenting about 30 different new tools from the past year—covering areas like procedural modeling, geometry processing, photogrammetry, UVs, exporters, and so on. I will also be talking about our upcoming plans for supporting next-gen game development.

You will see my colleagues presenting Project Titan, a beautiful UE5 game environment piece set in a futuristic Amsterdam and built almost entirely using Houdini tools.

What are the best ways procedural system Houdini helps teams work together—especially on larger projects like world-building, where a lot of simultaneous independent work and collaborative efforts are needed?

So, some of the main challenges of the massive world-building projects are the scale and complexity of the environment, which directly add to the cost of design or art iterations. Compared to a non-procedural system, where we may need to throw more hours and money into the project, a procedural system introduces automation into the equation. 

A collaborative platform like Houdini basically enables engineers and technical artists to come to the artists' aid, creating and maintaining tools that can strike a good balance between art-directability and automation. So you will often see tens of times or even hundreds of times higher throughput in various parts of the pipeline. To put it simply, if there is a dependency between two people or two departments, the ultimate way to reduce the wait time of the second party is to help the first party get their job done much faster.

What are a few notable highlights in Houdini 19, the newest version that launched late last year—and have they inspired ideas for future updates?

For game devs, some of the coolest new or improved features are our KineFX procedural animation / mocap / retargeting / secondary motion tools, fast and interactive grooming tools, much better and faster pyro looks and rendering, vellum grain and cloth solvers, Karma XPU renderer. Most of these will receive further enhancements in the upcoming Houdini releases.

Houdini Engine will be ready for UE5 when it officially comes out. The support for Nanite is ready. Later this year, World Partition support will also come out, but we don't have a specific date yet.

From SideFX Labs, apart from the tools I will talk about in my presentation, this year we are going to be investing more in expanding our world-building toolset. Through Labs daily builds, these tools will be made available on a more frequent basis than major Houdini releases. You can follow us here on Twitter and check out our new public roadmap (the link will be pinned to our Twitter page).

What questions are you hoping to get from GDC attendees when they visit Houdini’s virtual booth this year?

We would love to learn about what types of exciting projects you are working on, any new challenges or old headaches you are dealing with, what you think we can do so that you may enjoy the creative process more and worry less about the technicalities.

What’s one thing you do or enjoy that might surprise people about you?

I know a memory trick that lets you memorize hundreds of digits of random numbers.

Head here for more information about SideFX and its services! 

GDC 2022 will take place from March 21-25 at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, California, with our virtual event happening March 21 to April 1. This year’s event will deliver the industry’s greatest source of content and connections—with plenty of exciting talks, sessions, and networking events. Register for GDC 2022 today!

GDC returns in-person to San Francisco, March 21-25—registration is open! For more information on GDC 2022, including our virtual options, be sure to visit our website and follow the #GDC22 hashtag on social media.

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