As the fashion industry pushes further and harder towards digital product creation being the foremost strategy – something the pandemic has kicked into a higher gear – concerns around the accessibility and interoperability of the tools available are mounting.
For the most part, the developers of 3D design and visualisation tools have done a terrific job of making a complex discipline intuitive for non-technical users, but the ability to easily find and manipulate digital materials is still out of many people’s hands.
As a member of the original team behind Adobe’s Substance Suite of 3D texturing tools, Pierre Maheut knows a thing or two about turning complex technologies into creative-focused applications. And with 2020 pegged as Substance by Adobe’s “year of apparel,” we sat down with Pierre to find out what he feels the future has in store for digital materials and digital product creation.
The Interline: There’s a real appetite for 3D in the fashion industry at the moment, and we know a lot of creative professionals are working to understand its potential and its limitations, so we wanted to start with the fundamentals. What do you see as the key things to understand about how 3D assets are built, and how does Substance fit into that picture?
Pierre Maheut: Whenever you build a 3D object, you need to focus on three main points. First is the mesh – the model itself. Second is the lighting, which is absolutely key. And third is materials. When you combine all of those together, you start to reach a level of realism that people are happy with.
There’s a famous concept in the 3D industry that we call the uncanny valley, where you recognise something for what it is, but don’t recognise it enough to believe that it’s real. And that happens more the closer we get to real-looking models, because our brains pick up on the places the realism falls down.
I like that because it’s really a psychological concept, but it explains a lot about the way people have felt about 3D in the past, in apparel, and how they feel about it today. We’ve reached a level where 3D looks closer to real than ever, but that’s translating into more problems with the way people actually respond to the 3D assets, because they’re looking for perfection.
To try and move past that, most people are concentrating on improving the mesh itself – adding more detail to the underlying model. With Substance, we want to bring the highest level of realism possible to 3D through digital materials.
The other cornerstone of 3D, as I see it, is that the models and the materials need to be solution-agnostic, so they can be used across an entire ecosystem of products. Materials from Substance use a standardised SBSAR format, so they work across our own solutions but also in game engines like Unreal and Unity and CryEngine, as well as in modelling programs like 3DS Max, Maya, Modo and so on.
Our idea is that digital materials should become part of existing workflows and existing pipelines without disturbing anything – just adding value. This is why we just announced that Substance Materials are supported in Browzwear, and the list of integrations is going to grow in the near future as we add support for the most popular 3D tools. For example, we are currently working with CLO, too.
The Interline: Beyond the technical level, the real value of 3D for fashion brands is its ability to bring ideas to life in a unique way. That’s something that is powered by the complex technology under the hood, but only really unlocked when that power can be harnessed to help liberate creativity. Do you see usability as being vital to even broader adoption of 3D in apparel?
Pierre Maheut: There’s a very strong culture within Adobe 3D & Immersive around left brain and right brain: the idea that there are people who are more technical and people who are more artistic. And between them you have technical artists, who are developing tools and designing materials so that people who want to paint with them have their palette ready to use.
The roots of any 3D solution – including Substance – are very mathematical. Our founder (Sebastien Deguy, founder of Allegorithmic – Substance and now VP 3D & Immersive at Adobe) has a PhD in mathematics and computer graphics, and that grounding was critical for laying the right foundations to build a creative toolset on top of. But the technical nature of all that can be a barrier to creativity if it’s not made as usable and seamless as possible, and that’s a cause we fight for every day so that artists can really express themselves.
The Interline: That’s a balance that other industries already seem to have found, judging from the way that Substance, Unreal Engine, and other tools have found success in sectors like automotive, architecture visualisation, and industrial design. Are there any vital lessons you feel fashion can learn from those other industries?
Pierre Maheut: I started my career as a transportation designer so I’ve seen the industry warm to 3D, and I’ve seen automotive designers enjoy using 3D and find real value in using it to express themselves. That’s something I definitely believe can happen with fashion designers as well.
One thing I think it’s important to emphasise, though, is that I will never tell anyone that 3D is the only way. It’s just another tool – like sketching on paper. Another way to express an idea for a shoe, or to bring an industrial design concept to life without having to experiment with the actual materials.
This is why we ran a show car contest not too long ago – to showcase the imaginative potential of being able to paint detail and material onto an existing 3D model, and to shine a light on just how different the end results can be. As you can imagine, in the real world, painting a BMW to test out a wild idea is really time-consuming, polluting, and impractical – especially if you then need to fly your newly-painted car around the world to show it to people.
Painting on a 3D model, though, allows you to explore, test, and validate as quickly as you want, and then show off the results. And if you want to paint the car in gold, or use a fabric, or anything else you can imagine – you can.
The Interline: The biggest contrast between those industries and fashion, though, is that showcasing a car or an interior design doesn’t require any interaction between the model and a digital avatar. That’s obviously not the case in fashion, where seeing a garment or a shoe in the abstract is fine for in-house purposes, but it might not be fit for consumer applications.
Pierre Maheut: That comes down to extending the creative user’s capability again. Just like trying a different material on the outside of the car, giving a designer the tools to see a new style on a tall man, or a short woman by working in 3D offers a quick route to experimentation and visualisation.
In terms of the believability of the avatars themselves, there’s a lot of technical complexity that goes into creating what look like simple end results. If what the user wants is a completely realistic-looking human, then the goal is clear, but the process is not as straightforward as you might think. I understand why brands want that level of fidelity, but it’s much harder to achieve than it might seem – without crossing into the uncanny valley.
In these cases, it’s important to put things back into context and to challenge your needs. For visualising a product for design or concept validation, is a photo realistic human really necessary? There’s a 3D artist called Ben Koppel, who I love, who’s creating beautiful digital catwalks, with believable products, being worn by invisible models. And I think that’s a great example of the need to think beyond the natural desire to mimic reality, because in fact there’s a lot of artistic value in finding tricks or work-arounds that still achieve the creative aim without the extra complexity.
The Interline: It feels as though there’s one other major barrier – besides believable-looking results – standing in the way of industry-wide adoption of 3D, and that’s standardisation. At the moment, there is no single, technical standard for digital materials. What is it going to take to get the apparel industry to adopt a single standard that works across different platforms, rendering engines, and applications?
Pierre Maheut: I believe we’ll have standardisation as soon as one format meets all the needs of the users. We need realism, we need flexibility, and we need a way to produce those virtual materials at speed and scale.
The Interline: That leads to perhaps the biggest question of all: how do you actually create a digital material that has all those characteristics? What are the different ways in, and what are the steps involved?
Pierre Maheut: There are three ways to create a digital material. The first and most obvious is that, if you have a physical material sample in your hands, you can use a material scanner – whether it’s by Vizoo or TAC7, or it’s something you’ve built on your own – to generate a digital version of your material that will react to light the right way, with the right colour, displacement, normal and so on. Substance Designer and Substance Alchemist can bring those inputs in and automatically generate a digital material.
The second approach is the procedural one. Here you’ll be starting from scratch and having full control – which is a more technical approach, but the final result gets much greater flexibility. You can extract one fibre from another, change the way you’re knitting your fabric, or how the colours are mixing – and all of those variables can be edited independently from each other.
Finally, we have a method that takes the best of both worlds: the realism of the scan, and the flexibility of the procedural approach by having the first layer come from a scan, and then adding the additional information through a graph. Those are what we refer to as hybrid materials.
The Interline: That additional information brings us to what we see as being unique about the SBSAR format: variability. Can you explain to us how that works?
Pierre Maheut: Our roots are in the game industry, and there it’s very important to have flexible materials that can be tweaked. We feel the same way about the fashion world: you need to have variations based on the same underlying fabrics, so you don’t need to store hundreds and hundreds of different maps that might only be used for one or two products. Instead, we have what’s called the Substance Engine, which can generate maps on the fly depending on how the material is being used.
Any SBSAR file can contain different parameters on top of the raw material information – whether that’s multiple colours of the same material, or other parameters that can be adjusted by the user to create new versions of the material. So you can store just a few materials but these will open the door to a library of variations that you can explore and dive into.
What’s important is that the final user, the creative designer, does not need to know how the material started life – whether it was scanned or procedurally generated. They see a set of user-friendly sliders that make sense for everyday work, and that they can play around with and see immediate results.
The Interline: At some point, the goal must be to have SBSAR materials actually accessible from within the major 3D solutions – Browzwear, CLO, Optitex, Romans CAD and so on – so that users can import them from the Substance Source library like they would if they were accessing a material from their own PLM system or another source. Is that on the agenda?
Pierre Maheut: Substance Materials are .SBSAR files, which as we’ve said is an interoperable standard, so they can already be stored in any PLM system or imported into any 3D solution that supports them. The next-level value is going to come when we can showcase a very wide range of fashion-specific materials and populate our Substance Source library with them. Two key people are spearheading that effort: Pauline Boiteux, a digital materials artist, and Nicolas Paulhac, a designer who also heads up our digital content. They have made a huge effort this year to gather the right references [some of their work appears alongside this interview – Editor] and users should expect to see a large drop of fashion-ready materials on Substance Source in the very near future.
The Interline: Finally, there’s a lot of talk around augmented reality (AR) in fashion retail, but until recently there haven’t been a huge amount of tangible, valuable applications. What’s your take on AR’s place in the future of product design and visualisation?
Pierre Maheut: For me, as a former designer, the core value of 3D is still being able to dream something and bring it to life in a way that was never possible in the past.
We had an industrial designer come to work as an intern in the Adobe Special Projects Team, and I asked them to work on designing a new Bluetooth speaker as a project. This person is around 21, like I was when I graduated, and instead of making a model from a single physical material, they were able to create the basic mesh for her design, then instantly visualise what the finished product would look like in 100 or more different colours and different materials and variations. They put some of the renders on Instagram afterwards, and all their fellow students – who you’d expect to be able to tell the difference between what’s physical and what’s rendered – assumed she’d made the speaker for real.
That’s the sort of experience that any product designer can have with the combination of 3D and AR – provided their painted models are in a format that can be exported to Adobe Aero, or Snapchat AR, or whatever platform allows them to then see it in the real world – in however many variations they like.
As a designer, I know that people still want to touch a final, full-scale model or physical sample before they validate something for production. Not everything has to be digital. But there are still important shortcuts and opportunities for creative expression that can reduce the time a designer has to wait to see their idea come to life from months to minutes.