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Geoff Carterwritten by
Geoff Carter
Snapping photos of the future

Nearly everything about Brian Townsend’s job reads like science fiction. Put simply: He works in a room nicknamed “The Vault,” and he creates photographs of products that don’t yet exist. When Townsend does his job, you get a Surface tablet that’s real in every way but for one: It doesn’t exist in three dimensions. Not yet, anyway.

If you’re confused, believe me, you’re not alone. Townsend needed to explain his work to me several times before it finally stuck. He was patient, even enthusiastic in doing so, which kinda goes against the sci-fi stereotype. Brian Townsend, it turns out, is also kind of in awe of his job.

“It's an interesting blend between technical ability and artistic ability,” he said. “What we do is take the CAD that the engineers produce and turn it into something that can be used to create a photorealistic image. It gives you a head start on the marketing, and it also gives you a lot more control over the look of the product.”

Nearly everything about Brian Townsend’s job reads like science fiction.

OK, I get it: The Industrial Design team hands Townsend a file containing the exact specs of their latest doohickey—say, a Surface Pro tablet with a keyboard. He and his team take that file and create an exact image of it that can be used in advertising, manuals and in-store demo reels. That much, I understand. The part I don’t get is, why do that? Why not just take a photo of the latest build, and use that?

It’s to Townsend’s credit that he answers my question as if it weren’t, you know, kind of dumb.

“A lot of times, the products are still evolving by the time the marketing team needs to see them. The products aren't done yet, so there's no physical version that actually exists for them to be photographed.”

And even if there were a physical build, they couldn’t use that photo everywhere: “We cater to 28 different markets,” he said. That means that if he’s assigned an image of a Surface Pro with a keyboard, he has to create that piece of hardware 28 different ways. “We create a lot of images in a day,” he said, chuckling.

In that moment, which happens in the first minute of the interview, I decide that I like Townsend a lot. He’s friendly and deeply humble; rarely do you meet artists or architects who are so quick to share credit with others. He can’t seem to say enough nice things about the work he does, the people he works and the company in general. He seems like the proverbial best friend ever: the man who’s only too happy to pick you up at the airport, or help you to move a couch up a flight of stairs.

“He’s technically my boss, but it doesn’t feel like that,” said Brittany Rediger, who works alongside Townsend in the vault and assists with re-touching and localization. “I think it's probably the best working relationship I've ever had.”

And as Townsend and I continue chatting, I figure out part of the reason why he is the way he is: Like me, he hails from Las Vegas, Nevada. Forgive my hometown pride, but some of the most grateful souls I’ve ever met have been Vegas natives. It’s hard to come out of that desert town being anything other.

“Townsend is friendly and deeply humble; rarely do you meet an artist so quick to share credit with others.”

In cultural terms, Las Vegas is a very young city. It has only recently begun to produce great gallery artists (Tim Bavington, Casey Weldon) and internationally renowned musicians (The Killers, Jenny Lewis), and to create an environment where gifts such as theirs could be nurtured. Las Vegas has always aspired to be a good town, but only in the past decade has it decided to become a great city, with museums and a performing arts center and cafés and all the other things that feed an artist’s soul.

Brian Townsend was born in Las Vegas in 1984, when the city was still largely a factory town. You worked your job in the glitter mines of Caesars Palace or the Stardust, then hopped in your air-conditioned car and fled to your air-conditioned ranch house. There were pockets of art and technology here and there—most of it around UNLV—but by and large, Vegas was pretty much casinos and thrill rides and strip malls while Townsend was growing up.

And like so many other Las Vegans I’ve met, growing up in that environment created in him a whole-cloth unique brand of creativity, one that prizes things that people who were raised without giant glass pyramids and faux-Arthurian castles take for granted.

“I think when you live in a place like that, you have to be selective about what you want to look at,” he said. “My Vegas upbringing helps me avoid a lot of visual chaos, because there's so much of it there. I really like a more simplistic style than what you see in Vegas.

“And I think it also helped me appreciate other places. In Vegas, you have a little of everything, in a sense: They have the Eiffel Tower, but it's not real. They have a New York skyline, but it's not real. It really made me appreciate the actual cultures of those places, once I got out of there and got to travel around a bit.”

That happened shortly after high school, when Townsend enlisted. By then, he’d already caught the 3D modeling bug; he’d taken a computer graphics class in his junior year, and a 3D modeling class in his senior year. But Las Vegas had few jobs to offer in those disciplines in 2002 (and still doesn’t have that many), so he took what seemed a logical step and joined the Army, eventually attaining the rank of Specialist.

My Vegas upbringing taught me how to avoid visual chaos, because there's so much of it there.

“My job title was Combat Engineer,” he said. “Basically, as a Combat Engineer, your role is to make sure that our army can move and that the enemy army can't. That covers everything from putting in bridges to taking out bridges, from putting in minefields to taking minefields out, to blowing holes in roads, all that stuff.”

Townsend served for four years, including one year in Iraq. He is modest about his service in the Army, politely demurring when asked about that time in his life. (“There were some close calls and some pretty hairy situations. I made it out pretty much unscathed, I’m lucky to say. Not all of us did.”) His laptop came to Iraq with him, and he spent most of his downtime continuing what he’d learned in school.

“I had Light Wave 3D on there, a 3D program,” he said. “I stuck with it and tried to teach myself what I could before I got out of the Army.”

Once he finished his tour of service in 2006, he attended the Art Institute of California at San Diego, where he began his formal training in art and 3D work. I took all these rough ideas that I had about how the process worked and how the business worked, and I started to refine them into something more professional.”

From there, he moved more or less directly to a contract gig at Luxion, developer of the 3D rendering application KeyShot. He was hired to do the company’s branding, but soon ended up doing a little bit of everything, from conducting webinars to writing software manuals. By the time he came to Microsoft nearly two-and-a-half years ago, he was a walking, talking knowledge base—one that also happened to have a sharp, discerning creative eye.

How to photograph something that doesn’t exist (yet)

Brian Townsend creates stunningly realistic imagery of products that are still in development, using a state-of-the-art virtual photography studio. Here’s how he does it:

  • First, create a 3D model of an in-development product using its exact engineering specifications. Then, “pose” your product in every possible configuration, so it can be virtually photographed in any position. For example, if you’re working with a Surface Pro 3, you’ll pose it with and without the keyboard attached, showing the kickstand in all positions, and so on.
  • Time to set the scene. Choose your background, stage and light your virtual photo studio, then position the product how you want it to appear. “It’s just like a real world studio,” Townsend explained. “Light behaves exactly like it does in the physical world.”
  • Now you can get your shot. Using Townsend’s rig, you can adjust factors like the framing, exposure, and focus as though you were using a physical camera. Retouch the details as needed and – voilá – you’ve just taken a photo of the future.

“I think it’s good to be versatile,” he said. “Sometimes we'll have to do little short videos that illustrate a new idea that the designers may have. A lot of times we'll mock up fake UIs and do keying of hands so it looks like somebody's interacting with a touchscreen. That's not initially what I came here for, but it's something that's useful for the design team. It helps them work through ideas.”

That’s Brian Townsend for you, moving the proverbial couch to the second floor without being asked.

Creating a render of a Surface tablet takes a lot of computing power—more than Townsend’s team possessed at the beginning, as it turns out.

“It started with three desktop PCs that were networked to my workstation. This amounted to a total of 104 processing threads, which seemed like a lot at the time,” he said. “But as time went on, the amount of deliverables shot through the roof, and we found ourselves needing some more horsepower.”

At the time, rendering work was outsourced, so the word “render farm” didn’t mean a whole lot to most people,” Townsend said. The marketing team soon learned what one was, and invested in some servers, which Townsend spent a weekend setting up.

“By Sunday evening there was a stack of 16 high-density servers set up in the Surface design studio, ready to kick off the first test image,” he said. “As I powered them on, it sounded like several turbines starting up – relatively quiet, compared to what I was in store for.”

Townsend sent the first image to the farm … and then the fun began.

“Each server started to scream as the cooling systems kicked into high gear. About two minutes in, there was a pop and then silence. I had blown out an electrical outlet, and I realized there wasn’t enough juice in one standard outlet to power these systems.”

Townsend and his crew distributed the servers to several outlets throughout the studio and tested them again. The power stayed on, though the servers were loud enough that “the design studio sounded like a wind tunnel,” he said. Over the month that followed, they tried different placements; the creative director for the Surface team agreed to house four servers until it raised the temperature in his office to 90 degrees, and people in surrounding offices began complaining about the noise.

Brian appears to be floating in front of a Microsoft Store

Finally, after being chased from several more offices by heat and noise complaints (and one more blown outlet), the servers were given a permanent, air-conditioned home. They’re in there even now, happily jamming away, generating 616 permanent CPU threads for a total of 1.2 terahertz of available computing power. (Everything is backed up to the Microsoft cloud as well.)

“Surprisingly, there are still moments where we need more power,” Townsend said. “During tight deadlines, the designers are nice enough to donate some of their machines to tie into the farm as well. This increases our power by an additional 20 percent within a couple hours. I’ll always happily take more CPU power—even if it means apologizing for a few noise complaints and a blown fuse or two.”

Like many residents of Western Washington, Townsend spends his off time outdoors. He loves hiking, camping and traveling, and is thrilled by “anything involved with photography.” But the more we talk, the more I realize that his greatest enthusiasm in life is contained in the Vault.

“He's really, really immersed in the job,” said Brittany Rediger. “I think he would like to do more outside of work; he's been painting at home and cooking a little bit more… But he's pretty passionate. He saw an opportunity to build a rendering team, and he saw the opportunity to make the renders better. He never really stops. He can go home and keep working on what he's doing for another four hours after he leaves the office.”

It’s easy to understand why. Once you’ve taken your first snapshot of the future, it’s tough not to keep on looking forward and get more pictures of the next coming thing. And his job is literally getting bigger: When the Surface made its debut, Townsend had to create renders of it that were a wee bit bigger than usual.

“We had this massive display in Times Square,” he said. “There was this huge, 40-foot-tall display out in front of the Microsoft Store that I had to render out. And there were probably three or four 20-foot-wide images inside the store itself that needed to be created.”

There’s no way that Townsend wasn’t thinking of Las Vegas when he made those towering images. Here he was, working at the size of a half-scale Eiffel Tower or fake New York skyline, but he got to make the renders on his terms: without visual noise, without needless distraction.

The billboards were everything he’d ever wanted to do … until the next thing. And he’s looking forward to that challenge, whatever it may be. He’s even in awe of the possibilities the future holds, having taken snapshots of it.

“You could say I work here,” said Brian Townsend. “But I’d also say I haven't really worked a day since I've been here.”

Originally published on 11/24/2014 / Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft
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