Voxel House | Cheney Shen

Technology blog

Voxel House

  • Introduction





My projects typically revolve(围绕) around some central idea that I want to explore. Here, that central idea is a particular content driven approach to modular tilesets that I’ve had on my mind for a while. This project could have been created as a Python script in Maya or a node graph in Houdini. However, since I don’t want my final presentation material to be a dull narrated youtube clip set in a grey-boxed Maya scene, I created an interactive web demo instead. As a tech artist, the width of my skill set is crucial; I’m not a master artist nor a proper coder, but I’ve got a slice of both in me. I’m most comfortable in the very intersection of art and tech; of procedure and craftsmanship. A web demo is the perfect medium to display those skills.



  • Figuring out the tiles


The core concept is this: the tiles are places in the corners between blocks, not in the center of the blocks. The tiles are defined by the blocks that surround them: a tile adjacent to one block in the corner would be 1,0,0,0,0,0,0; a tile representing a straight wall would be 1,1,1,1,0,0,0,0.



Since each corner is surrounded by 8 possible blocks, each of which can be of the 2 possible states of existence or non-existence, the number of possible tiles are 2^8= 256. That is way more blocks than I want to model, so I wrote a script to figure out which of these tiles were truly unique, and which tiles were just rotations of other tiles. The script told me that I had to model 67 unique tiles – a much more manageable number.



I could have excluded flipped version of other tiles as well, which would have brought the number down even further. However, I decided to keep those so that I could make some asymmetrically tiling features. The drain pipes you see in concave corners of the building is one example of that.



  • Boolean setup in Maya


Being the tech artist that I am, I often spend more time on my workflow than on my actual work. Even accounting for rotational permutations(排列), this project still involved a large amount of 3D meshes to manually create and keep track of. The modular nature of the project also made it important to continuously see and evaluate the models in their proper context outside of Maya. The export process had to be quick and easy and I decided to write a small python script to help me out.



First, the script merges all my meshes into one piece. Second, a bounding box for each tile proceeds to cut out its particular slice of this merged mesh using Maya’s boolean operation. All the cutout pieces inherit the name and transform from their bounding box and are exported together as an fbx.



Not only did this make the export process a one-button solution, it also meant that I didn’t have to keep my Maya scene that tidy. It didn’t matter what meshes were named, how they were parented or whether they were properly merged or not. I adapted my Maya script to allow several variations of the same tile type. My Unity script then chose randomly from that pool of variation where it existed. In the image below, you can see that some of the bounding boxes are bigger than the others. Those are for tiles that have vertices that stretch outside their allotted volume.




  • Ambient Occulusion 环境光遮蔽


Lighting is crucial to convey 3D shapes and a good sense of space. Due to the technical limitations in the free version of Unity, I didn’t have access to either real time shadows or ssao – nor could I write my own, since free Unity does not allow render targets. The solution was found in the blocky nature of this project. Each block was made to represent a voxel in a 3D texture. While Unity does not allow me to draw render targets on the GPU, it does allow me to manipulate textures from script on the CPU. (This is of course much slower per pixel, but more than fast enough for my purposes.)

Simply sampling that pixel in the general direction of the normal gives me a decent ambient occlusion approximation.


I tried to multiply this AO on top of my unlit color texture, but the result was too dark and boring. I decided on an approach that took advantage on my newly acquired experience in 3D textures: Instead of just making pixels darker, the AO lerps the pixel towards a 3D LUT that makes it bluer and less saturated. The result gives me a great variation in hue without too harsh a variation in value. This lighting model gave me the soft and tranquil feeling I was aiming for in this project.




  • Special Pieces(特殊件)



When you launch the demo, it will auto generate a random structure for you. By design, that structure does not contain any loose or suspended blocks.


I know that a seasoned tool-user will try to break the tool straight away by seeing how it might treat these type of abnormal structures. I decided to show off by making these tiles extra special, displaying features such as arcs, passages, and pillars.





  • Floating Pieces


There is nothing in my project preventing a user from creating free-floating chunks, and that’s the way I wanted to keep it. But I also wanted to show the user that I had, indeed, thought about that possibility. My solution to this was to let the freefloating chunks slowly bob up and down. This required me to create a fun little algorithm to figure out in real time which blocks were connected to the base and which weren’t:


The base blocks each get a logical distance of 0. The other block check if any of their neighbors have a shorter logical distance than themselves; if they do, they adopt that value and add 1 to it. Thus, if you disconnect a chunk there will be nothing grounding those blocks to the 0 of the base blocks and their logical distance will quickly go through the roof. That is when they start to bob.


The slow bobbing of the floating chunks add some nice ambient animation to the scene.




  • Art Choices


Picking a style is a fun and important part of any project. The style should highlight the features relevant to a particular project. In this project, I wanted a style that would emphasize blockiness and modularity rather than hiding it.


The clear green lines outline the terraces, the walls are plain and have lines of darker brick marking each floor, the windows are evenly spaced, and the dirt at the bottom is smooth and sedimented in straight lines. Corners are heavily beveled to emphasize that the tiles fit together seamlessly. The terraces are supposed to look like cozy secret spaces where you could enjoy a slow brunch on a quiet Sunday morning. Overall, the piece is peaceful and friendly – a homage to the tranquility of bourgeois life, if you will.



  • Animation


It should be fun and responsive to interact with the piece. I created an animated effect for adding and removing blocks. The effect is a simple combination of a vertex shader that pushes the vertices out along their normals and a pixel shader that breaks up the surface over time. A nice twist is that I was able to use the 3D texture created for the AO to constrain the vertices along the edge of the effect – this is what creates the bulge along the middle seen in the picture.






  • Conclusion


The final result is like a tool, but not. It’s an interactive piece of art that runs in your browser. It can be evaluated for it’s technical aspects, it’s potential as a level editor tool, it’s shader work, it’s execution and finish, or just as a fun thing to play around with. My hope is that it can appeal to developers and laymen alike. In a way, a web demo like this is simply a mischievous way to trick people into looking at your art longer than they otherwise would.







































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