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.

The Prasad Report: LEGO CAD!

The Manifesto is proud to present the first installment of The Prasad Report, by frequent contributor Achintya Prasad.  This highly irregular series will cover anything and everthing that falls outside the scope of his (Great Debates!) feature.  Without further ado, take it away Mr. Prasad!

Hello everyone!  After the quite literal great debate over the minifigure, I thought it would be a good idea to present a more…calming review of a few LEGO CAD software programs I’ve recently used, to allow everyone a nice breather before I find something else to throw the comments section into chaos. Here we go, the first ever review, by yours truly, an enthusiast who has never built using software, ever.

Today, constant reader, I do have a special treat for you. Not only will I be bringing you a more-or-less (un)comprehensive review of Bricklink’s new program, Stud.io, and LDD, I will also be showing you sneak peaks into a massive new build I’ve been teasing on this blog and on Flickr. I assure you (or well, I mostly assure the editorial overlords of The Manifesto) that this isn’t a shameless plug for my builds, but rather, an example of taking the program to the ragged edge. Or at least, that’s what I’m telling myself. I should explain, that I have used CAD programs before, such as Microstation Powerdraft, and Model Smart. I’m actually quite good at technology, but LEGO CAD has been a mystery to me. So, while I’m not a total idiot in this field, I’m not exactly Steve Wozniak either.

So, let’s first do some background. While the traditional LEGO brick has been around for decades, the new century has brought about a new and very exciting form of building, via various CAD software. Now, while there is a debate about whether or not these electronic elements are on par with “real” LEGO creations (whatever that means), there is no doubt that there is a fair amount of skill and patience necessary to create anything meaningful in these programs.

Arguably, the most wildly known program is the LEGO group’s offering, Lego Digital Designer, or LDD for short. This program was amazing, it offered an advanced program that allowed even some more complex creations to be built within the program. While it was supported by LEGO, the program quickly became the favorite tool for LEGO’s CAD enthusiasts, from beginner-novices to advanced experts. Perhaps the most amazing feature of the program came from its Design By Me program, which allowed you to upload your creations to the LEGO website, create a box design for your creation, and have it shipped to your front door. Of course, such models weren’t cheap, and the program was often plagued with quality control issues. This eventually resulted in the company pulling the plug on the subsection, ending one of the most convenient tools in the pocket of the LEGO builder. The program, as a whole, soldiered on until 2016, when the Denmark headquarters officially terminated support for LDD. While you can still download and use the program, the elements guides are no longer updated by the LEGO company, and there are no planned bug fixes or updates.

Now, when I decided to embark on my insane nine baseplate large project, I initially turned to LDD as the method for keeping a tally of the number of elements I would have to buy. See, my idea is build an island, a complex undertaking that would require me to learn techniques in everything from rockwork to waterfall building, not to mention stretch my capabilities as microscale builder. LDD seemed like the cheapest way to try out all sorts of different ideas without having to invest time and effort into failed prototypes. Also, I was really attracted to the idea of having an instruction manual that could guide the entire building process, though the instructions I eventually generated made little sense and weren’t physically possible in our universe.

During the construction process, I did feel the program was lagging a little in features. For instance (and perhaps I’m a bit thick in figuring this sort of stuff out) I ran into massive issues when trying to duplicate rows of tiles to cover the baseplate. This was a huge problem: at the time of writing, the project consisted of 3,100 trans-light blue tiles. Every single last one of them was manually cloned and individually placed. Yes, it was as terrible as you can possibly imagine. Another issue that consistently plagued me was the camera movement. It was hopelessly difficult to try and move the viewing angle, leaving me to just guess and hope that I was placing elements in the right place.

By the time I finished with the general outline of the island, I was really starting to look for alternatives to the program. The relatively limited element cache was hampering my attempts at utilizing every possible technique and element available. Furthermore, the sheer number of elements in my project (number at over 3,000 at that moment) were blending into each other, making it difficult to differentiate between elements.

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One day, as I was scrolling through the money trap that is Bricklink, I discovered a new software: Stud.io. I decided to give it a shot, mainly because I was so woefully out of touch with the LEGO digital crowd that I actually believed that LDD and LDraw were the same thing (and to be honest, I’m still not 100% sure of all the differences). Not bothering to read any of the web page, I went straight into the download stage, completely unaware of what I was getting myself into.

Studio image 1

Thankfully, my LDD file imported quickly into Stud.io. Instantly, I have to say, the camera angles and flexibility was lightyears ahead of the LEGO group’s offering. The expansive Bricklink library was at my fingertips. Each element was easy to search up, and each search would result in beautiful renderings of the part, complete with 360-degree rotation. Basically, it was heaven.

Stud.io. also banked quite a bit from LDD. As far as I can work out, the placement options for elements is about the same (or again, I’m being really thick, and some smart commenter is going to telling me something that will actually enrage me) but the connections were oh so much clearer. Stud.io also showed when an element was connected impossibly, as in the element could not exist in that connection in our dimension, and when a piece had clicked with another. These two features alone saved me hours of troubleshooting and hair pulling.

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Also, unlike LDD, the program recognized that LEGO’s illegal connections aren’t actually all that awful, and usually allow such odd combination to exist. Stud.io also began to show up LDD in its model analysis. It was very easy to get a break down of the entire elements list and associated costs from the Model Info Section. These valuable information points are difficult to gain access to from LDD, and requires the model to be exported into other software, such as BrickSmith or LDraw (unless LDraw is actually LDD in which case I’ve completely lost it). This all sounds like a positive, but unfortunately, I have a very sad story to tell you.

At around the 5,200-element mark, I realized that significant portions of my build (especially the support structure) were now submerged in hundreds of detailed rocks and trees and other elements. While I was nowhere near completion, I tore a page out of the US defense industry’s playbook, and started the dangerous game of concurrency.

To those innocently unaware of what concurrency is, think of the impossible proverb “building an airplane while it’s flying.” Effectively, I started construction of the model before finishing the entire CAD file. It’s a terrible idea, but the time savings are honestly astounding. Of course, if the method didn’t work for Lockheed Martin and its F-35 program, what chance would a middling TFOL have with such an advanced concept? After all, I still didn’t know how to use Stud.io to its fullest.

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Anyways, as I began to try to ascertain some of the hidden elements in my project, I thought it would be a good idea to get a copy of the building instruction. Except for one thing: Stud.io doesn’t have that feature. See, when I didn’t bother to read the website before downloading, I didn’t realize that the program is still in BETA, and was missing some key features. I desperately attempted to contact Bricklink, who graciously never returned my emails. I attempted to export the model into the mysterious LDraw, only to have the program fail at creating instructions. At this stage, my laptop had been working extremely hard, and, after dedicating the entire processing power to running the intensive program, began to expel hot exhaust from its heatsink, very painfully burning my hands. This was especially worrisome, as my computer, a relatively new MacBook Pro, rarely behaved in such a way. Any further jaunts with the program were limited to 20 minute installments, usually ending with burned fingertips and realizations of the fruitlessness of the instruction less CAD model I had created.

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This leads us to today, where I have decided that CAD software is absolutely rubbish (for me) and the rest of my model will be built the old-fashioned way: using hands, Bricklink orders, brick separators, teeth, paper and pencil (so I can do my scaling calculations because I’m pedantic), a baseplate, various random snacks and drink, and bucket of unorganized LEGO elements.

FINAL VERDICT:

In my opinion, Stud.io has quite a bit of potential. The ability to upload creation to Bricklink and interface with its massive database is a quantum leap for the community. Recognizing the full potential of LEGO, from the expanded database, to the illegal connections, is nothing short of amazing. BUT FOR GOD’S SAKE read the directions before you begin. Anyways, there you have it, all I can think of about Stud.io. Have you used the program, or another LEGO CAD software? Tell us your experiences in the comments down below.