The Google Weekend
Last week was the Google Summer of Code Mentors Summit, a yearly event organized by Google, where they invite mentors of the Google Summer of Code program, a program that pays students to work on open-source projects. This year, like last year, FreeCAD participated to GSOC. This year we had 4 really good students, and the one I have been mentoring, Amritpal Singh, has done a really remarkable job with his Reinforcement Bar add-on for FreeCAD.
The two years, FreeCAD participated to GSOC together with other open-source CAD, CAM or 3D-related projects, under the "umbrella" of BRL-CAD (they basically did all the organizing). Each year, Google invites a certain number of mentors from each organization to the Mentors Summit, at Google headquarters, in California. So this year, I applied and was lucky enough to get selected. We were five in the BRL-CAD group: Sean, Vasco, Gauravjeet and Inderpreet from BRL-CAD, and myself from FreeCAD.
My main motivation to go was, beside a huge curiosity to see Google inside, I was really eager to know and chat with the BRL-CAD people, our umbrella organization. This project is quite fascinating, it is the first ever registered project on Sourceforge, it is very hard to see it progressing (their website doesn't show much), but it is a huge and powerful application, that stays a bit arcane, and hard to explore by newcomers. But I had a good contact with Sean over the years, and was really curious to know more.
So, the said day, after a pleasant flight (not so pleasant because at he last moment they changed my São Paulo -> Mexico -> San Francisco flight to São Paulo -> New York -> San Franciso, which added 2 or 3 hours of flight time), I landed at San Francisco and shared a ride to the Google headquarters with other people going there (everybody chatting and arranging these things beforehand through a quite interesting open-source chat system called Zulip that got used quite extensively throughout the event. Another chat app, RocketChat was there too, there has been quite interesting debates between the two, I still didn't make my mind fully).
So we arrived at Google HQ, landed to our hotel (conveniently located INSIDE the Google campus (which is not really one campus, they basically own half the cities of Sunnyvale and Mountain View). This is located at the southern tip of the San Francisco Bay (San Francisco being at the North).
And it began immediately, right there. You get your badge, and immediately you can start eating and drinking and chatting, because they reserved some rooms of the hotel and stuffed them with food. After a little while, a transfer bus takes you to one of the Google building, where there is a dinner (two large restaurants plus many cafés, food trucks, etc where everything is for free were available for us basically the whole time), then an opening session, then a couple of lightning talks (3 minutes talks to present GSOC projects), then more beer
I couldn't get a chance to showcase our GSOC projects of this year though, there were around 300 people wanting to present theirs, and only 50 or 60 slots.
There was also a cool table where everybody dropped chocolate brought from all over the world.
The next day started early, around 7h, with a breakfast at Google, and a whole day packed with "unconferences" (basically small spontaneous lectures or workshops organized by the mentors themselves), more food, more coffee, more chat, more lighning talks, and at the end, of course, more beer, and even roast marshmallow on the open fire, maybe the most epic moment for us non-Americans.
The last day was like that again, and ended up with a closing session in the afternoon.
Like I guess most people there, I didn't attend many unconferences. I basically stayed most of the time in the common areas chatting with people. My impression is that I never chatted so much in two days. At the closing session, the event organizers said they were happy, because they almost never saw anybody alone with his computer, which is something you see a lot in other open-source events. Everybody just kept talking with everbody, all the time.
This is really a magic that Google operated. There were no "boot camp" crap, or "socializing games" or any of those activities to make people socialize. They just provided space, food, drink, and a friendly atmosphere. That's it. Even me who is not a very social person, kept playing that game of going sitting for lunch each time to a different table with unknown people and talk about our projects. I've never seen an open-source event like that.
I also tried to get a glimpse at how life is at Google, but couldn't do much. The security schema was tight, no pictures allowed inside buildings, we were only allowed in a very small zone of the Goolge campus, you gave one step out of it and a security guard came to herd you, etc. But all in all I believe they do their publicity extremely well. In my mind everybody at Google would just lie on colored sofas, picking free drinks in an open fridge, would cycle around marvelous campuses on Google bikes, etc. The reality seems actually much more normal, you just sit on your computer and do computer work, and have meetings with your colleagues. But the atmosphere seems really relaxed, there really is free drink and coffee Other than that, my spying mission at Google failed miserably.
Ah, there were ice cream sandwiches too.
I talked a lot with Ton Roosendaal, the father of Blender. I met him other times already, he always keeps an eye on FreeCAD too. Ton made me a bit anxious, because he told several horror stories about big companies threatening to sue open-source project developers about patents, and in some cases managing to scare developers away of coding completely. We really need to start thinking about that at FreeCAD, and think of strategies to protect ourselves as much as possible.
But we also talked about things we could do together with Blender. The big game engines out there are moving towards offering more tools for CAD software, and we should do something similar, like an easy/1-click, template-based export from FreeCAD to the new stunnigly realistic view mode they are preparing in Blender, called Eevee. Just do a small search on youtube for "blender eevee" and your jaw will drop
Another person I hanged a lot with if François Beaune (Franz) from Appleseed, a stand-alone rendering engine, similar to Luxrender. I knew Appleseed for some time, and I had a vague idea of trying to integrate it in FreeCAD some day, but this has now become a much better and more realistic plan, after François showed me around the renderer, its API and file format. It is definitely doable, and could become easily the best integrated renderer in FreeCAD. It is in fact possible to make it totally seamless, as if FreeCAD itself would do the rendering. But first things first, we'll start with exporting an appleseed file from the FreeCAD Raytracing workbench first, like the other engines we support already. I'll also take the opportunity to make the Raytracing workbench a bit more pythonic, so new render engines with a python interface will be much easier to add.
And the third really interesting talk I had was with Sean from BRL-CAD. BRL-CAD is a very old project, started by the US Army, which later on released it as open-source. I really thought BRL-CAD had become a pretty inactive project, but this is very far from the truth. The thing is, BRL-CAD's main user is still the US Army, so almost everything that is modelled with it is classified, so it is very hard to publish anything that was done with it, which explains the very sparse image galleries, social media, etc.
However, it is an extremely interesting project. It consists of about 700 commands, a bit like a Unix/Linux operating system where all the base commands you use in a terminal, such as ls, mount, chown, etc.. are actually each one a file, or individual program. Then higher-level tools, such as the desktop environment, uses these commands under the hood to list directories contents, move files, change file permissions, etc.
BRL-CAD works exactly like that, it's a bit like a Unix of CAD... It has a graphical interface, but its real power resides in the vast array of command-line tools. And a modelling tree in BRL-CAD is in fact a shell script!
Another interesting feature in BRL-CAD is that it is capable of managing absurdly huge models. Since it doesn't really have a graphical modeling interface, which must display the model (and therefore compute it and triangulate it, because most computer 3D visualization systems around, such as OpenGL, rely on triangles), they can produce raytracing directly from the model definition and not from a triangulated version of it. This removes a big part of the process that FreeCAD has to do.
So there is much interesting stuff there that maybe we could do something with in FreeCAD. I am not sure what exactly yet, but only the "command line" system itself could easily be integrated into FreeCAD, it's not very different than what we do at FreeCAD level itself between App and Gui.
And BRL-CAD and Appleseed are also working on integration.
After the mentors summit ended, I got really curious about something I read in The Circle, the main character, who works at "some computer firm close to the south tip of the San Francisco bay", likes to take her kayak, go behind the office and paddle in the bay. I saw that the Google campus lies at a few minutes by foot to the bay, and there are many trail paths around, so I went there for a walk, and wasn't deceived. The area is magical, lots of channels and water ways, with here and there a stand-alone, man-made artifact, like a radar, a ship lock, etc...
After that I spend a couple of days in the lovely San Francisco, which I decided should integrate my list of magical cities, together with Barcelona, Venice, Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro. I did a bit of drawing too, and checked a couple of architecture icons like the Federal Buiding by Morphosis (impressive "concretization"of everything Morphosis has been saying, but big doubts about the so-called "green building" stuff and the very poor attempts at making the building users "socialize"...), Libeskind's Jewish Museum (really disappointing, very little more than just a "funny space"), or the MOMA by SnÃ¸hetta (couldn't enter unfortunately, wrong planning).