TouchEngine has just launched and it’s quite a big feature! It allows any application to integrate TouchDesigner .tox files into them and essentially run TouchDesigner in real-time behind the scenes. This could completely change the landscape of TouchDesigner development, and in this post I’ll be talking about how.
What is TouchEngine?
Engine COMP was the first iteration and implementation of TouchEngine. For those that haven’t used Engine COMP, this means that you can create a network with some form of inputs and outputs, save it as a .tox file, and then load that .tox file into an Engine COMP which runs it in another headless instance of TouchDesigner behind the scenes and returns the output to your main process/project. All of this instance/process management happens transparently behind the scenes. We wrote previously about Engine COMP and talked about some tricks with it.
Now, TouchEngine is rolling out the same infrastructure to other applications. You could hypothetically have Unity, Unreal, Max MSP, Processing, openFrameworks, Watchout, Disguise, Hippo (or any application or server really) embed a .tox file and use TouchDesigner behind the scenes. Unreal Engine is going to be one of the first supported major applications to get TouchEngine but it’s already been rolled out into Front Pictures’ Screenberry media server. But what does this actually mean for you and how could this affect your TouchDesigner career?
I think one of the main areas this could shine for developers is creating a demand for blackbox tools. What I mean by blackbox is that the tool has well defined inputs, controls, and outputs, and users aren’t supposed to go inside of it to use it. Up to now, if you made a TouchDesigner tool you’d have to sell it to other TouchDesigner developers because they were the only folks that could use. This is inherently tricky because TouchDesigner developers are also the type of folks who like building their own tools, challenging themselves with development tasks, and want to look inside tools to see how they’re made. I think this is one of the main reasons we don’t have a really thriving marketplace for assets and pre-made tools. No demand = hard to maintain supply. This could completely change if all of a sudden these scenarios start to exist:
- A Watchout operator wants to integrate a unique visual effect into their show (think Notch Blocks but with TouchDesigner)
- A production company want to implement custom data viz during a live eSports event into their existing broadcast pipeline
- An Unreal team want to integrate hardware that isn’t natively supported in Unreal into their project
The list could go on forever but the main idea is this: for the first time ever, non-TouchDesigner folks could become extremely interested in what TouchDesigner can do for them without having to worry about managing a whole other piece of software or developer because they can buy tools and implement them with TouchEngine into their existing apps.
More varied custom development
Some developers will be overjoyed about more opportunities to build tools, while others enjoy the hustle and bustle of one-off projects. TouchDesigner development requests have been on the upward trend for years now. Imagine how much larger that could become if TouchDesigner can be integrated into industry-standard game engines (Unity/Unreal) and media servers (Watchout, Disguise, Hippo, etc). Now these projects might not always be as big as our normal TouchDesigner projects, because those other applications are likely handling a lot of things as well, but we could see a surge of small development jobs emerge. These could be similar to the tools mentioned above but for one-off projects or prototypes. I think this will lead to a much healthier career path for freelancers, whom often get overwhelmed by how quickly their TouchDesigner projects go from being small installations they’re doing with small brands to large corporate mammoth installations that need 24/7 support and SLAs. Having a ton more production gigs that aren’t gigantic will invariably create more opportunities for developers to hone their skills without feeling like they went from a small swimming pool into a shark-infested ocean!
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The API Future (TM)
If you’ve watched our live streams or been in The HQ PRO, you’ve likely heard me talk about where I see the industry going. I think over the next 5 years, interoperability of applications and workflows will be one of the deciding factors for whether we even use certain applications. We’re all aware that every application and toolkit has it’s strengths and weaknesses, so it’s a bit strange that in 2021 we’re still trying to silo whole projects into one application or another. The trends I’ve seen point to applications opening up integration capabilities so that the strengths of different applications can be used together to create beautiful and compelling projects in the most efficient and straightforward manner. This could mean taking the hardware I/O and logic programming from TouchDesigner, combining it with real-time content created in Notch, and implementing that into an Unreal XR environment. Even 1-2 years ago this would have sounded like an insane integration development challenge that would probably be very unstable and unexplored territory. But now it’s becoming first-party supported and I don’t think you can underestimate the impact that has on our industry.
Up till now, I still don’t see the equivalent job of a VFX generalist in our industry (freelancers don’t count because they can do lots of stuff!). Creative technologists would be closest, but all the creative technologists I’ve seen tend to lean more towards living in the design team and less towards living in the engineering teams. The future of application interoperability being first-party supported and encouraged will create this engineer-first generalist in our industry.
Of any feature released in TouchDesigner in the last few years, Engine COMP was one that I was most excited for. To me, it fundamentally could change the paradigm of working in TouchDesigner. TouchEngine does the same but for how we work with TouchDesigner in the bigger picture of a project. I’m excited to see this rollout both as a technical feature and what it can do for our niche industry. Hopefully this gets you excited and already looking into how you can work with TouchEngine!