At GDC, Autodesk announced its intention to buy French AI specialist Kynogon, makers of the Kynapse middleware. We speak to those involved to find out what the deal means for the industryâ?¦

Autodesk’s move into middleware

Intel (annual revenue $38 billion) has Havok and the Project Offset game engine. Nvidia (annual revenue $3.8 billion) has Ageia and, if you cast your mind back a couple of years, graphics optimisation specialist Hybrid too. It should be no surprise that big technology corporations are interested in game middleware.

But, despite owning the majority of most game developers’ asset creation pipelines, Autodesk (annual revenue $1.8 billion), hadn’t looked to move upstream into real-time smarts (back in the early 2000s, Alias tried the trick with the Maya Real-Time SDK but without much conviction). The surprise acquisition of French artificial intelligence company Kynogon, announced during GDC 2008, has changed that conventional wisdom however.

“Autodesk isn’t integrating Kynogon. Kynogon is integrating Autodesk,” laughs a bullish Jacques Gaubil, who was approached together with fellow Kynogon co-founder Pierre Pontevia to head up Autodesk’s new games technology group. They have the brief to bridge the gap between Autodesk’s expertise in 3D asset creation and real-time engines.

On the simplest level, its Kynapse pathfinding engine provides a great fit with Autodesk’s HumanIK animation engine, itself a product of Alias’ acquisition of Kaydara back in 2004. Together with an as-yet unspecified physics engine, these three technologies are expected to be rolled out as an intelligent character animation package that can deal with navigating through dynamically changing environments.

“Our theme is Create, Animate and Integrate,” confirms Rob Hoffman, Autodesk’s senior 3D product marketing manager. “On the creation side we have 3ds Max, Maya and Mudbox and on the animate side we have MotionBuilder. The integration portion is about having more elements of the overall pipeline. The more elements we have on the runtime side, the more things we can make interoperable.”

Part of Autodesk’s decision making seems to have revolved around its experience of selling the HumanIK system. It’s been used in high profile games such as EA Sports’ titles and Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed but it was offered more as a consultancy service than a freely available middleware package like Kynapse.

“You have to crawl before you can walk, walk before you can run and run before you become an Olympian,” Hoffman points out. “We started working with some Tier 1 customers to make sure the interest was there and that what they were expecting out of the software was also there. It was a safe way to begin and it’s starting to pay off.”

“At the moment, artists are having to work closely with coders to try and solve this animation issue,” Gaubil explains. “The bottleneck is the interface between art packages and the game engine. Only Autodesk can solve this problem.”

But he’s looking beyond the short-term to consider the sort of future technology Autodesk will be able to create thanks to its financial muscle and sales teams. “The middleware market is changing fast. The industry desperately needs stable, longterm player who can offer cross-platform products. That’s what we aim to provide,” he predicts.

Hoffman also sees the current consolidation as a signifier of widespread change. “Not only are we seeing a blurring between industries such as games, films and design in terms of the tools that are being used, but most of the game facilities we’re talking to would prefer to buy their technology off-the-shelf.”

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