Mecabricks Interview (Blog or Die! Entry #16)

Accepted entry for the “Interview” category.

Author: Caleb Inman (VAkkron)

Word Count: 1,674

Mecabricks Interview

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It is my pleasure to present an interview with the mysterious man known online as Scrubs, creator and supporter of Lego CAD and rendering software Mecabricks.  Ladies, gentlemen, and constant readers, please put your hands together and lend your ears as we pull back the curtain on the life and work of the one and only Mr. Nicolas Jarraud!

[Caleb Inman: CI; Nicolas Jarraud: NJ]

CI: Hello Nicolas!  Can you give me a brief description of yourself, either education or career, and your interest in Lego?

NJ: I was born in France in the early 80s and like most kids there I played with LEGO in my childhood. The sets that we owned with my sister are now in a big case stored at my parents’ place. I currently live on the other side of the globe in New Zealand where I moved more than a decade ago. Until recently I was designing production equipment for a medical company. I am now working for a big tech company as an optical engineer where we design the next generation cockpits for traditional and self-driving cars.

My dark age finished somewhere in 2011 when I started Mecabricks. I had to catch up on 15 years of LEGO products and history! From this date, I accumulated a big amount of sets. Way too many according to my wife. Some of them to keep like the modular buildings and others only for parts that I model.

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Render credit: Nicolas

CI: Impressive to hear you actually buy parts in order to model them for your parts library.  That’s an amazing level of dedication.  Do you actually use those Lego pieces that you’ve bought to build anything?  What made you decide to devote your time to virtual building, and why do you believe virtual building is important?  What are benefits of digital Lego modelling over physical building?

NJ: I am not really a builder. I can barely follow the instructions from the LEGO manuals and I always have pieces remaining at the end! I am not bringing any news by saying that LEGO is expensive. Building virtually allows to use any quantities of any parts in any colours. Freedom! You are not constrained by physics. Parts can intersect and are not subject to gravity. This is a different way of thinking and it can appeal to both people wishing to build their creations later with real bricks or simply create something more abstract that is not possible in real life.

To put it in a wider context, this is also a fun way for kids (or adults) to discover CAD (Computer-Aided Design) and maybe generate vocations. With the likes of 3D printing or laser cutting being more and more accessible to the public, understanding CAD system is a nice to have skill.

CI: I know exactly what you mean, and in fact I was one of those kids who decided to be an engineer because of my experiences with Lego CAD programs.  However, I used LDD, and there were other CAD programs available for Lego building before Mecabricks.  Can you describe your experience with them, and the problems they had that you are trying to solve with Mecabricks?

NJ: LDD is not for me. Too many constraints. I am not able to build anything with it. I always end up fighting with parts to put them in the right orientation at the right place. LDraw based CAD software were maybe the opposite at the time. Too much freedom and therefore the same issues. I have also been asked multiple times why Mecabricks was not using the LDraw part library – For the same reason I wanted something unique for the building tool, I did not want to depend on a third-party library. I managed to create a whole separate system using modern tools and modern formats.

Overall, I love technical challenges which was probably the main driver. Bringing more options to people is also not a bad thing. All of them are very different in the way they work.

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Render and model by saabfan2013

CI: So Mecabricks is essentially build from the ground up.  Very impressive.  What else makes Mecabricks unique?  Has developing a community forum and website helped to generate interest in your CAD program?

NJ: Mecabricks doesn’t need to be installed. This is only online. You open your browser on your computer or your tablet and you have all your files available with the latest version of the tools and the parts. It all happens seamlessly. This is a big advantage for example for schools where it can be a complicated process to get anything installed on the kids’ machines.

Mecabricks is also a great place to discuss everything about digital LEGO. The forum is still pretty basic but includes a lot of great tips for building and rendering. You will find there talented people with different skills: Renderbricks for technical stuff, Zanna for the artistic side, Saabfan (one of the designer of the Apollo Saturn V set)  for the building technics to name a few.

CI: You are doing some ground-breaking work with digital render systems.  First, tell me how these renders are becoming more and more realistic, and closer to mimicking real-life photography.

NJ: It is only in 2014 that I have been pushed by user Renderbricks to create export tools so that models could be opened in traditional 3D software. This has brought Mecabricks to a new level and I am now working at making this even easier and more accessible to a wider audience.

My favourite software is of course Blender and in the recent years the community has been really active. The rendering engine called Cycles is now mature and powerful. I am closely following the development and every new feature they provide is implemented in the Add-ons available on Mecabricks.

In the past few years I also spent way too much time observing and taking close shots of LEGO elements to understand how they interact with light. Being an optical engineer was a big help.

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Render credit: Nicolas

CI: I wouldn’t have thought of that.  That’s a great way to combine career experience with your hobby.  I am sure the technical expertise extends far beyond light and computer programming. Is the hardware system just as complex?  Also, what will be the availability of this render feature?

NJ: This new feature of Mecabricks will be available in the second half of January 2018. It will be possible to create stunning images in your browser without special knowledge. Although the use is very simple, this is not the case of the system that is running in the background.

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Render by Renderbricks

CI: I have heard the phrase “render farm” used.  Can you describe what that means and how is this the best option for builders who want to render their models?

NJ: The main issue with 3D rendering is that it takes a lot of power and a lot of time. It can take multiple hours for common home computers to calculate a single frame. So, the idea here is to send the LEGO scene to special computers that are built for this task only. When the render button is clicked, a 3D file is created and sent to New Zealand. This file is then converted to a Blender scene and shared among multiple computers to be rendered. The final image is assembled and composited before being sent back to the user.

As an example, a 4K images (3840×2160) that would take more than 3 hours to be generated on my 3-year-old iMac is only taking about 7 minutes with the system I designed and built. Everything is optimized for LEGO rendering.

Ease of use, quick turnaround and guarantee to use the latest render features available are the key aspects of the Mecabricks render farm.

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Render by Nicolas; Model by IstakaCiti (link unavailable)

CI: Who is your target audience?  Can builders from other Lego CAD software export their models into Mecabricks?

NJ: Anybody willing to showcase a digital 3D LEGO creation. I think it will be popular among designers posting projects on the LEGO Ideas platform. Having nice presentation images is a bonus to ensure a good visibility.

It is currently possible to import LDD models in Mecabricks with some limitations. But with minimal rework in the workshop the result it pretty good. Obviously, I am not a wizard and parts not available yet in Mecabricks cannot be imported.

CI: What will be the cost to use the rendering feature?

NJ: To be announced very soon but very affordable anyway. The goal is to find a balance to be able to pay for electrical power and any future hardware development.

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Render by Renderbricks

CI: What do you plan to do next?  Where will your innovations take you in the future?

NJ: The to-do list is never ending and the community growing. So, I try to share my time between running what is currently existing and designing the future of Mecabricks.

The next big feature that is long overdue is an instruction builder. The goal is to make a tool that is both easy to use and powerful enough to create high quality manuals.

CI: I know many builders from both the physical and virtual branches of the hobby have been waiting for an easy, comprehensive instruction builder for a long time.  That will be a massive innovation.  Before I conclude this interview, is there anything else you’d like to share with these wonderful constant readers?

NJ: Building digital LEGO models is fun and the possibilities endless. Give it a try.

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Render and model by saabfan2013

CI: You do incredible work and I have seen the excitement of people who have been able to use the render farm.  The results look spectacular.  Thank you for doing this interview, and I hope you keep up your excellent work!  Best of luck in the future.

 

*All images in this interview are made with the Mecabricks render engine and courtesy of their respective creators.

Fire for Effect: What’s love got to do with it?

This is the improbable eighth salvo in Michael Rutherford’s regular column, Fire for Effect. Without any further ado, take it away Mike…

As most of my readers (all eight of you) already know, “Fire for effect” is the specific command one utters in order to summon a large (or at least decisive) amount of artillery fire against an enemy who’s exact location and disposition are known.  In this respect, I am wandering slightly afield with today’s fire mission.  Today’s installment would really be more accurately characterized as “counter battery fire”.  When enemy artillery fire comes in on your position, you try to identify the source of the hostile fire, and then to direct your own artillery fire against it (by use of task built radar systems).  I’m calling today’s fire mission “Counter Battery” because, I am inspired specifically by the work of another author.  I dedicate this fire mission entirely to him with all due respect.  His work was topical, relevant, and touched a nerve in me.  Even as I call for fire, I want him to know that it is only with the utmost respect that I offer this counter volley.

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Back in July, I read an article written by one very pissed off Australian AFOL called Jay.  Jay (who runs a very nice blog by the way) was angry because every year, TLG distributes “Exclusive Minifigs” via some kind of random draw system at the San Diego Comic Convention (SDCC).  Specifically, he said he was angry because he really, really wanted some of these figures, but he could not secure them at the price he wanted.  The title of the article was basically his thesis: “San Diego Comic Con exclusives are terrible and LEGO needs to stop them.”  Here is a link to the article itself:

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I liked the article.  It lacked structure, but the author took refreshingly unambiguous position.  Sure, in the comments, I fault him for not providing supporting arguments, to reinforce some of his underlying assumptions… but overall, I liked it.  More importantly though, I was taken with the other readers responses.  The empirical evidence suggests pretty clearly, that his thesis resonates with many AFOLs.   Out of 73 comments, 25 were statements of absolute agreement with the author’s thesis.  That’s a lot.  Only 6 were clearly statements of disagreement.  The remaining 42 comments were either unclear, impertinent, or they were the author responding the comments of others (also a pretty cool practice in my opinion).  25 to 6.  Most commenters were basically saying: “damn right TLG needs to stop!

The readers gave a lot of minutely different reasons for disapproving of this practice.  But when you boil it down to gravy, the majority of people were complaining that they couldn’t get the figures and this  makes them angry.  Here is a quote from the author that sums up many people’s feelings on the issue:

“I am continuously disappointed that LEGO are still engaging in this awful practice. Please stop screwing over your most passionate fans while you enrich resellers and scalpers. It’s anti-fun and anti-fan behavior.

I read this and thought: So what?  This question leapt to the forefront of my mind in an instant.  So what?  I repeated the question allowed this time, speaking to nobody in particular.  Flinging the question directly out into the dimly lit smoke-filled lounge where I was sitting… and then, the incredibly talented Mrs. Tina Turner put a reassuring hand on my shoulder and with one of her trade mark fleshy smiles, she and asked the musical question: What’s love got to do with it?  Then she sang and danced a bit.  When she was done, we sat in silence, sipping our drinks… and again, I asked myself: What’s love, but a second-hand emotion?

The author suggests in this quote that he (and AFOLs in general) somehow matter “more” because we  are passionate (or dedicated, or committed, or whatever) to the product.  He (and many others) suggest that their opinions should matter BECAUSE they are big time AFOLs.

And THAT notion is the fulcrum on which his thesis and my counter thesis pivot.  The notion that AFOLs matter to TLG was the spark for this FFEs thesis… right here… ready? It’s really short, so don’t blink…

AFOLs don’t matter to TLG.

We don’t matter one at a time, and we don’t matter when we gang up and get ready to rumble (cue the Warriors trailer, but instead of the Warriors, picture several morbidly obese bearded AFOLs running from the baseball bat wielding gang!) I’m not buying it.  If you try to collectivize it, and say that AFOLS as a population… passionately… consume a whole lot of Lego… and TLG knows it… and that make our opinions more relevant… you’re still deluding yourself.  Our eclectic and factious little tribe does not constitute a large enough share of Legos annual sales to actually influence TLGs marketing decisions.  Many AFOLs, like Buzz Lightyear, have an exaggerated sense of self-importance.  I’m with Woody on this one:

Just to be clear, I’m not saying I’m glad TLG does exclusives.  And I’m not saying it isn’t annoying that they do exclusives.  In fact, I’m not really talking about the “SDCC Exclusives” question at all here.  Jay’s article is an illustration of a larger, and more important assumption that many AFOLs share, and THAT assumption is what talking about here.  I’m talking about a prevailing belief amongst AFOLs that TLG acts (or should act) on the opinions of AFOLs.  I think this assumption is silly.

My argument today is what most scholastic debaters would describe as analytical in nature, as it does not rely on specific published information.  There are no detailed statistics or pie charts and there are no quotes by published experts.  It is not evidentiary.  This is because (honesty in lending here…) I rarely do any actual research in these diatribes.  This will be at best, a description of a research project that might be interesting if anybody actually did the research.  This argument, like almost everything else I have written here will be a prima facie deal.  I will offer a series of basically mundane assertions, each of which should appeal to you, constant reader, because they correspond with your own observations and experiences.   I am going to try to jockey these limited assertions into something vaguely resembling a syllogism because… it creates clarity and forces me to be logical even if my initial thought process is not logical.  Or phrased differently, if I cant make the syllogism work… it might be the universes way of telling me that “my dog just don’t hunt”

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So… here is a list of my assumptions.  These are all the basic assertions that I believe, and that when linked, will support my thesis:

  1. TLG is an ethical organization, but, the single strongest influence on their decisions is profit.
  2. TLG profit is massive. So massive in fact, that TLG is forced to consider not simply specific numbers, but larger concepts like “market share” and “strategic trends
  3. TLG knows that adults purchase, and have always purchased, more Lego than children do.
  4. The term AFOL is separate from the notion that adults purchase most Lego.
  5. TLG can only identify a small number of AFOLs as being separate from other adult Lego buyers.
  6. There is no accurate data source for AFOL numbers or activities.
  7. Because the AFOL market share is not KNOWABLE… it is foolish to assume that TLG acts upon it.

I will develop each of these points in a second, but just so I don’t lose you, here is a quick list of negative assumptions (NAs) that I DO NOT DISPUTE.  I won’t develop these assumptions, but I don’t deny them.  They are part of the landscape, but they are not germane to my assertions.

NA1.      AFOLs do buy more Lego than most adults… but only on a per capita level.

NA2.      TLG does know AFOLs exist… they just don’t care, or regard us as uncontrollable distractors.

NA3.      TLG does pay the AFOL community some small attention, because that is an inexpensive way to create the image of a socially engaged company (an artificial image is pleasing to the larger non-AFOL but still adult Lego purchasing population).

NA4.      Most of us… people… humans… everyday… have an exaggerated sense of self-importance (but this is extra, extra true when discussing Goldman!).

Still reading.  Really?  Well I can’t throw stones… I mean hell, I’m still writing so really, what am I going to say about you still reading?  I’ve wasted even more time than you so far!  Let me develop my assumptions while you jab holes in them… I can hear the hiss of escaping air even now!

Assumption 1. For as long as I have been paying attention, Lego has always come across to me, as a highly ethical company.  They held out against the sirens call of “war toy profit” for ages!  Lots of other lousy brands went to the low hanging fruit of military themed building toys… but Lego?  They made limited concessions, but they held tough to “no modern war themes” even in the face of almost certain loss of market share.  That’s commitment to an ideal dammit!  I just don’t see much of that.  Hell yes I would buy Chick-fil-A on a Sunday if they were open!  They are losing profit… in the name of a moral value?  Astounding by today’s standards.  So ETHICS?  Yep, TLG has, in living memory demonstrated a strong ethical element in their decision-making.  But ultimately, that lesser god, ethics, is subordinated to the oldest and strongest of the gods of the market place pantheon: PROFIT!

I give TLG props for holding out as long as they did… and I call them out… for selling out… with the introduction of the Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Arc franchise action.  The Star Wars guns… Oh thank you TLG for those!  Modern, vicious and menacing in appearance.  But at the same time, it was kind of the end of innocence.  Gone were the days of “romantic violence”… you know, medieval weapons that are only used of impaling, cleaving, and hacking.  Gone were the happy days of black powder weapons and the marginal cruelty of low velocity irregular iron projectiles.  The era of fully automatic directed energy weapons had arrived… along with the affiliated profit margins!  Those kits all sold like gang busters, and still do (even as TLG attempts to back away from the cruel guns and replace them with those tragic spot light looking devices).  The point being that it is PROFIT and NOT ETHICS that ultimately directs TLG’s decision-making.  So for example, hurt feelings don’t matter to them…

TLG is going to engage in marketing behaviors based on impact of profit in terms of market share, and not on the notion that some ill-defined subset of the adult purchasing population disapproves of their actions.

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Assumption 2. Again, I own it… some really soft math coming up.  Hell, I better just get away from the word “math” all together here.  I got NO numbers for you.  NONE… so let’s go with relative amounts instead.  If you read Jays assertions regarding amounts of money he considers relevant to this discussion, he applies some decidedly dicey math (hey… it’s more mathy than my own thinking!) and derives an amount of 60K in on-line sales (its down in the comments below his article).  He hangs his assertion of relevance on this amount.  I counter with the entirely subjective assertion that this amount is paltry (no Keith, not like chicken.  That’s poultry).  Double this amount.  Multiply it by 10… it’s still chicken feed (or poultry feed).  I offer that these numbers… when compared to the galactic numbers TLG deals with (and which I haven’t even tried to locate) are infinitesimal.  The decision to offer or not to offer “exclusives” is not about immediate profit.  They are “promotional” items.  They are meant to get people’s attention.  Introduce the product to people who might not otherwise think about Lego.  Maybe to increase brand exposure or some other “non-immediate” agenda.  Like advertisements, these exclusive offers COST TLG some cash… and they MIGHT generate profit… but only indirectly.

So what?  How does this assertion relate to my thesis?  It’s about scale.  I’m saying that the tiny derivative numbers generated by counting the sales of exclusive figures on-line after the moment of initial distribution, falls short of the significance of profit residing in “market share” level numbers by orders of magnitude.  Why is TLG giving stuff away at SDCC?  It’s not because it’s an efficient method of distribution!  SDCC is TINY!  The largest fan driven comic event in the world… is TINY!  I don’t know WHY TLG does it… but I think its more likely to be about marketing than direct sales.  Maybe they are giving away Lego at the COMIC event in order to make MORE comic book consumers recognize and consume MORE LEGO.  Maybe it is an attempt to make comic industry players recognize and like Lego as a product.  Maybe they are trying to cook up a buzz at a gigantic week-long commercial marketing event.  All of these possible agenda are only relevant in terms of “market share” or “market demographics”.  Big strategic numbers… where tiny glacial movements can still result in massive amounts of revenue.   Of course, in fact… I certainly don’t know why TLG does it (again… no reliable data) but I’m saying that it’s NOT to make an immediate profit.  In fact… don’t they literally GIVE the stuff away?  Or at least sell it for even tinier prices?

The endorsement (or even the opinion) of the AFOL community does NOT enter into TLGs decisions regarding these low density high effort marketing maneuvers.  Further, those opinions SHOULD NOT MATTER… because we don’t buy enough Lego to matter… the profit AFOLs contribute is not MASSIVE, and TLG looks at MASSIVE numbers.

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Continue reading “Fire for Effect: What’s love got to do with it?”