January 2020 Newsletter

Academics Speak

New Dimensions: 3D Animation in Digital Learning

As I watch Disney’s Frozen with my daughters, yet again, I’m once more amazed by the incredible way the animators have realised the snow that covers the Kingdom of Arendelle. What’s more, Disney and others in the industry frequently publish their methods at the prestigious SIGGRAPH conference. This lets us look behind the curtain and see how the magic is done, and in many cases, it turns out to be not too far from the methods we use in science and engineering to simulate the physical world in our own research.

The staggering increase in the capability and fidelity that can be achieved by today’s visual effects artists borrows much from the academic sphere but one area where they have made significant strides is in the development of the usability of their tools. Geared for maximum productivity in a competitive industry, professional software such as Houdini, Maya and the open source darling Blender can produce sophisticated 3D graphics with complex physical interactions with photorealistic results with ease. Unlike our precision academic tools, accuracy is not always a concern, but the results are often compelling due to their ability to mimic reality. What’s more, many of these tools are freely available to educators and students.

In a previous role in industry I found that creating simple 3D animations often captured the imagination of visiting and often jet-lagged executives far better than yet another PowerPoint presentation. A dramatic animation of a glowing hot telecoms system being dunked in dielectric fluid to efficiently cool it prepared the way for the following technical discussion. It also turned out that learning to make simple animations in software such as Blender wasn’t too difficult. The only challenge however is compute time, a machine with a powerful processor to handle the physical simulations and a beefy graphics card to simulate the virtual photons that bounce around and light the scene both realistically and beautifully is required.

As a new lecturer in UCD eager to make a big splash and inspired by the exquisitely animated math of Grant Sanderson’s 3blue1brown YouTube videos and the aforementioned Frozen I began to build a series of new fluid mechanics lecture notes that incorporated a large number of short but insightful demonstrations of fluid behaviour. These videos showcase phenomena that are often difficult to isolate or perhaps too subtle to observe in our already busy laboratory sessions.

Computer simulation showing the effect of increasing viscosity on a falling stream of fluid. This represents a type of flow that students will encounter on a daily basis. A number of videos such as this are shown to Mechanics of Fluids students to build intuition before delving into the theory.

The video was created in Blender using the same method employed by Disney for Frozen. The simulations capture the effect of fluid viscosity, a property of a fluid where motion is opposed and is colloquially referred to as ‘thickness’. From left to right we observe four brightly coloured fluid streams that impact a solid surface, the number indicated is the viscosity (we discuss the physical units later in the lecture). Each fluid can be classified as, perhaps, water, paint, honey and toothpaste. Additional videos, interactive graphics and experimental data are then used to take the students from this intuition building example to technical mastery.

Student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and I’m eager to progress this approach as I gather data on student performance. Several of my colleagues here in UCD have expressed interest in doing something similar but I also acknowledge that a degree of technical skill is required that may be outside the comfort zone of many. My ambition is to provide training materials and to help create a curated repository of high quality 2D and 3D animations that cover a diverse range of topics, not just fluid mechanics, or science and engineering. Licensing and usage tracking of content on such a repository would help to ascertain the value of this content and to reward the creators.

Right now, we’re figuring out how best to achieve this; initially through peer training of small groups but also more formally via the comfort of a postgraduate module. It is important that those who commit time to this reap the benefits of it.

I would love to hear your thoughts on all of this!

Dr Kevin Nolan is a faculty member of the School of Mechanical & Materials Engineering at University College Dublin. You can email him at kevin.nolan@ucd.ie

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