Note: This post is the first in a series called Innovative Chengdu that focuses on local Chengdu businesses achieving international notoriety right under our noses.
Two weeks ago I was contacted by Dries, a Dutch entrepreneur who’s been living in Chengdu for years, about the architectural visualization production company which he’s employed by. His inquery turned into a tour of the massive office he works at, which is the latest addition to the company’s 12 other locations in China. In the words of Lifang, the gargantuan industrial visualizations company:
LiFang International Digital is one of the largest architectural computer graphics producing company’s in Asia. LiFang International Digital Technology Group was formed in 2001 in Shenzhen. Now its headquarters is located in Shanghai. LiFang offers high end 3D computer graphics; visualizations, multimedia, 3D animation, virtual reality (VR), film and video editing and interactive applications, powered by more than 700 3D professionals in house and 10 years of experience. LiFang works successfully with architects, project developers, engineers and entrepreneurs to create professional presentations.
Recently I’ve been in touch with an unusually large number of architects, especially after this post on Chengdu Living about Adam Mayer, local friend and architect. I’m just now learning more about the concept and design backend to the countless construction cranes dotting Chengdu’s horizon and what role foreigners and foreign enterprise plays into that.
After being picked up by a young Chinese driver in front of Lao Ma Tou in a white BMW 7-series, I’m taken far outside of the city, to the West. As I figure out how to adjust the seat in white BMW 7-series, the driver and I chat about the company and his role there. He’s been working there for only 2 months and the car, that of the “big boss”, is on loan while he’s out of town. As we pass the third ring road I appreciate them appropriating the Presidents dapper automobile to pick me up and show me their admittedly impressive office.
The office is spread among 3 floors in a very large office building with a swank lobby that features their logo prominently. The furniture is the expensive looking variety that’s not comfortable. Outside of the elevator, the first room that I’m taken to is the show room.
The Show Room
This is definitely where they take anyone new to their office first. Basically, they’ve built a caverous room and filled it with slick gadgets to eliminate any doubt that they’re a cutting edge company.
The Tabletop Computer
The first gizmo that I’m introduced to is a tabletop computer display (pictured above, on the left) which allows you to flick images and videos around the massive display. In the demonstration I was given, several LiFang promotional reels were playing at once and I could shrink and enlarge them with finger gestures or toss them about the display with a swipe motion. In use it felt a lot like a huge iPhone. I was able to get a peek at the inside of the box from one end and could see how simple the setup actually was: a clear touch sensitive panel sitting above a projector reflecting off a mirror onto the surface.
Giant Google Maps
Just across from the tabletop device was what looked like an ordinary projected image (seen above displaying the world map). This too was a touch screen, though, running Google Maps. Zooming in on Western China was a blast and worked just like I thought it would. Using Google Maps on a device that’s larger than your peripheral vision is quite an experience, although your arms get tired from doing the dramatic movements required to zoom in and out quickly on such a large display. After a minute of zooming around I was ready to move on.
Much Wider Than Widescreen
Unfortunately what might have been the coolest of the showroom gadgets was out of commission during my visit: a 6-projector super widescreen movie display to show off LiFang’s animations. The screen looks so wide that nothing formatted especially for it would display properly, but the slight curve of the screen stretching more than 5 meters wide was impressive even out of operation.
Not Your Average eBook
On the way out I was introduced to “the book”. This is an oversized book on a pedestal with a projected image cast upon it, but of course there’s a special trick: swipe your hand from left to right over the book and the page turns. I flipped through pages of what looked like a LiFang promotional PDF document, admiring the page turning animation and wondering under what circumstances would someone actually stand here to read something.
At some point during my tour of the showroom it dawned on me how Chinese a room such as this actually is. It serves little purpose but to wow prospective clients or business partners with technology that mostly bears little relation to what LiFang actually does. Gotta have a gadget room, though.
Having finished the showroom tour, I was ready to check out the less eye-catching parts of the office and see what what LiFang is all about.
What LiFang Does
As I leave the showroom Dries tells me more about what LiFang does: the bulk their business is in creating 3D images which show property developers what a new construction will look like. Architectural firms based in China and abroad send blueprints and related material to LiFang who puts that data into a three part process:
- Modelling the three dimensional object in 3D Studio Max: including walls, windows, doors and other building fabrications
- Adding textures to the 3D models, like glass, brick, concrete and so on. Through the texture process objects are given life and go from computer models into realistic looking objects; and
- Two-dimensional compositing work done in Photoshop which adds polish to the final images. In this stage, small objects like trees and grass are touched up and made to look as realistic as possible, resulting in a final image with a striking level of detail
The result of this three-step process are images like those below. They’re photo-realistic and give property developers the inspiration they might need to push them over the edge on a decision that leads to a multi-million dollar construction.
Three Floors, Hundreds of Employees
As I walk past the hundreds of people sitting in front of computers across the three-level office, I notice that they’re all divided by the tasks mentioned above. One floor is entirely comprised of 3D modellers making wireframe models and the floor above is all Photoshop post-processing. Few people take mind of me as I walk through the office (Dries is the only foreigner that works at the Chengdu office) but some people smile and offer a friendly “Hello!”. Currently there are over 150 employees at LiFang in Chengdu, but Dries tells me later that the number of employees will eclipse 400 by years end and will surely number in the thousands by 2012. Why?
“As you know, Chengdu is developing very quickly. LiFang knows that, and there’s the added benefit of many local graduates skilled in art, design and architecture. The local Technology University (????) is known all around China and it’s easy for LiFang to recruit recent graduates without having to pay them as much as they would on the east coast. This office is poised to become very important in the grand scheme of LiFang due to its position, geographically and comercially”, Dries tells me in a conference room with 30 empty chairs next to us. “Around the world there aren’t really any companies that operate on this level. Imagine how much it would cost to employ 1,000 skilled workers such as these? This enormous-scale sort of thing only makes sense in China.”
After touring the entire facility I said goodbye, thanked Dries for his time and left LiFang in the same bosses white BMW wondering what else there is within Chengdu’s vicinity.
You can read more about LiFang on their official homepage.