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Mid-range 3D

Choosing the right software can be a major headache, and an expensive one at that. Tim Danaher examines the most popular mid-range 3D modelling applications, sorting out the men from the boys

The mid-range of the 3D market looks as though it's ready to collapse under sheer weight of numbers.

Although 3D, along with web design, is probably one of the major growth areas in computer creativity at the moment, I get the impression that something's got to give, and we may see a winnowing-out of this area in the next 18 months. Indeed, one well-known publisher of Mac-only high-end software has recently shut its doors (more on that later), while ElectricImage has drastically cut its prices and consolidated its product line to prepare for a move into the NT world.

There is also a problem about how exactly to define 'mid-range'.

Do you do it on features or on price?

Tricky, given that there are some packages costing only a few hundred pounds which put capabilities on the desktop that would have seen you shelling out thousands only a few years ago.

To this end, we're going to choose an arbitrary limit of £500-£1500, as well as including some programs that come in under the £500 mark but offer considerably more than their purchase price would suggest, while some applications at the upper reaches of the price bracket should definitely be considered 'high-end' programs.

Also, what constitutes a '3D' program? Should it offer the full complement of modelling, rendering and animation, or should it be something that gets some aspect of the 3D process accomplished?

We've chosen the latter.

Finally, the idea here is not to tell a prospective purchaser which program they 'should' buy or to announce a winner at the end; rather it's meant to be a distillation of facts about the programs, with inevitable comparisons being made between programs which are going after the same area of the market, or which claim to offer similar solutions.

NewTek Inspire 3D (£349) Win 95/98, NT MacOS

The first product under review here, Inspire 3D, is one that misses the price points we've set, but gets in due to its wealth of high-end features. Inspire 3D is a new product from NewTek, maker of LightWave 3D, the world's most popular 3D package, and it shares many features with the senior program. Like LightWave, Inspire is split into two separate applications:

Modeller and Layout, where rendering and animation are carried out. Apart from the interface colours, at first glance both programs appear identical.

Modelling in Inspire is extremely easy, since the package supports an easy-to-use implementation of NURBS modelling, MetaNURBS, which allows you to rough out your creation as a polygon mesh and then turn it into a super-smooth NURBS model with a tap of the Tab key. It's possible to produce remarkably fluid and detailed creations with little effort. Other modelling tools include a full set of very robust Boolean operators and a full set of LightWave's Deformation tools. What is missing is Spline Patching (although MetaNURBS can make this redundant), the very useful Knife tool for adding extra geometry to fine up models, and, bizarrely, the ability to turn off Grid Snap.

Inspire's Layout module contains the animation and texturing controls. Present is the same extremely high-quality (but rather slow) raytracing engine, but animation output resolution is limited to 640 x 480 pixels, making this suitable only for web-based and multimedia projects. Simple motion animations can be as easy as dragging an object around and setting keyframes. However, Inspire contains much of the animation control finesse of LightWave, except in one vital area:

Inspire's Layout supports bones, but not inverse kinematics, so without the ability to add IK constraints to the bones their usefulness is limited to making washing-up liquid bottles dance, and the like. Inspire also comes with a slew of very high-quality model Object files and animation Scene files that you can incorporate into your own work. The interface, which has improved in recent releases, can still be a double-edged sword: it passes by standard GUI conventions (you have to tab out of dialog fields before you close a dialog box to get the program to accept the value), but is a valuable stepping stone to learning LightWave, which has a preeminent position in the effects industry. It's also a cheap way of getting an extra seat for stills work, since the still resolution goes up to 8000 x 8000, and the purchase price can be redeemed against a later purchase of LightWave.

Cinema 4D Go! (£169), SE (£454) and XL (£945) Win 95/98, NT MacOS, BeOS

Cinema 4D, from Maxon Computer in Germany, comes in three distinct versions, Go! version 1.0, SE 5.0 and XL 5.2. SE is the less expensive of the '5. x' series, and is missing a few features of the industrial-strength XL version, notably Bones for mesh deformations, Freeform Deformation lattices (FFD), which are cages used to apply bending and squashing to objects which pass through, or by, them. XL also has a robust particle system set-up, which allows any object you can model to be used as an instance particle in a particle system. SE and XL both share an improved interface and, it has to be said, the gap between SE and XL has narrowed considerably with the release of SE 5.0. The programs also share one of the fastest raytracing engines around. Due to an adaptive algorithm, it produces astonishingly fast, high-quality renders, which allow you to check regularly on the final appearance of your projects. The difference that this makes to workflow and final rendering times can't be overestimated. (No renderfarms here! ) Both packages also have strong modelling features with support for spline-based modelling and Booleans (which are animatable), but they're not in the same league as LightWave 3D or Form.Z. Many 3D artists use Cinema as a rear-end to other modellers, such as Form.Z, since they have excellent import and export functions, and XL can even import LightWave 3D scene files with all lights, texture and IK information intact (but not bones), so that LightWave artists can make use of the much faster renderer.

With version 5.0 of SE, both packages now provide fast Gouraud shading and real-time texture mapping in the editor, without hardware acceleration.

The £196 Go! is essentially identical to SE 5.0, the only limitations being the lack of effects tracks in the timeline and the limiting of the output resolution to 768 x 576 (PAL) resolution, both for animation and stills. In this respect it has stolen a march on Inspire 3D from NewTek, which, while a much more capable modeller, has its animation output resolution limited to 640 x 480, so it can't be used for broadcast work.

In common with its two larger stablemates, Go! also supports inverse kinematics and volumetric lighting - unheard of in a package costing so little - and all packages can now make use of C.O.F.F.E.E. , the C++-like scripting language for producing the growing number of Cinema plug-ins. A slight drawback is that interface quirks still exist in a package which started life on the Amiga, although an imminent 5.5 release of XL (which will filter back down to SE and Go! ) promises to fix the most serious of these.

Available on Windows 95/98, NT and MacOS, a BeOS version has already been written for a planned second-quarter 99 release.

Infini-D 4.5 (£595), Win 95/98, NT, MacOS

Infini-D 4.5, also from MetaCreations, is the latest incarnation of this one-time Mac-only stalwart, now ported to 95/98 and NT. InfiniD, in versions up to 3.5, used to be the 3D illustrator's weapon of choice, but is now aimed squarely at the broadcast video sector. Version 4.0 was very buggy, adding a new interface (which borrows heavily from Kinetix' 3DStudio MAX) and support for other MetaCreations' technologies such as the Real-Time Geometry engine, but version 4.5 is much more stable and has fixed memory leak problems with the Phong and Raytrace renderers.

From a modelling point of view, little has changed since version 3.5, with the spline-based Workshop environment the core for organic modelling. The external shapes of objects are defined by four Bezier splines, which can be edited in 2D (either symmetrically or nonsymmetrically) to produce a continually updated 3D view of the object. Booleans are still only supported via the renderer, but are at least, animatable. Added in version 4.0 is another MAX-like feature, a Deformation stack. Here effects can be piled one on top of the other and applied to the same object.

Most of the real improvements have been animation-based, in keeping with its new direction. The new particle system output is confined to points, lines or polygons which must then be postprocessed to produce specific effects such as fire or smoke, and Infini-D can make use of After Effects and Photoshop-compatible plug-ins to achieve this. The wellthought-out timeline also includes a new audio track to make synching action and sound easier. Procedural shaders again take a lot of the donkey work out of defining surface characteristics, and Output from the renderer is of generally high quality, but can't match the speed of Cinema 4D, and is starting to look a little pedestrian. Preview rendering is unacceptably slow. What Infini-D does have is a large following, and there are plenty of web sites devoted to tips, tricks and workarounds.

StrataStudio Pro 2.5.2 (£939) Win NT, MacOS

StrataStudio Pro 2.5.2 is the newest version of a long-established program that also sees its debut on Windows NT (not 95/98). The new version looks set to steal a lot of ground from Infini-D in the broadcast sphere. It's a well-designed application with an interface layout reminiscent of Photoshop, with everything arranged on floating, tabbed palettes. The feature set is much more akin to Cinema 4D XL than Infini-D, however. It's a program where all work is carried out in a 3D perspective environment, so you have to think in 3D a little more than with some other programs, but its spline drawing tools have a familiar feel to them, and the intuitive construction interface, set up around three movable, rotatable working planes, is easy to get to grips with.

You can instantly switch to orthogonal views, though, if that's what you're used to. Modelling is usable, although the growing collection of plug-ins (which ship with the program) add some muchneeded features, such as live metaball modelling. Procedural Shaders are there too, as well as a very well-thought-out combined bones/Inverse Kinematics setup.

This basically uses the same type of bones skeleton to set up and control models made from jointed members and from single meshes.

Setting of IK constraints is also well handled, with joint limitations signalled visually on the bones skeleton. Animation control is also remarkably easy, since all motion paths are Bezier splines which are directly editable in the Workspace, although there is also the traditional timeline and keyframe approach available, and the two systems of motion control complement each other well. Strata is another program that comes with libraries of textures and models to get you started, and is one of the few applications to support OpenGL on the Apple platform.

ZOOM 5.5 (£1069), Art. lantis Render (£399) Win 95/98/NT, MacOS

Two other packages worth mentioning in the same breath are ZOOM 5.5 and Art. lantis Render from Abvent. ZOOM has some powerful modelling features, including Spline, Gordon's and Coons patches, which allow you to build irregular surfaces directly in 3D space via its quad-view set up.

Surfaces can then be seamlessly blended, stitched and trimmed to produce a variety of forms, but the product does seem to be aimed more at architecture and product design. Certainly, the flexible working plane implementation is one usually found in this field.

Animation, as is the case in the CAD field, is limited to simple camera walkthroughs and flyovers, with no facility to change object geometry or attributes over time.

While the modelling tools it provides are very robust, the interface is more complex than it needs to be, but an imminent version 6.0 promises to fix this.

ZOOM also interfaces well with the company's Art. lantis renderer, which is worth mentioning since it offers a unique approach to texturing and lighting objects and scenes. By a clever use of procedural shaders, selective updating and low-res previews, Art. lantis provides almost instantaneous feedback as you change texture scaling, rotation, and even transparency. Lighting changes are also handled instantaneously, and on the newer G3s and Pentium IIs it's possible to have 640 x 480 or 800 x 600 previews of scenes updating in realtime. Final output quality is excellent, and the newer version 3.0 also adds in spline-based camera animation. Art. lantis is a stand-alone program and can therefore accept input from a wide variety of modellers.

Rhino 1.0 (£595) Win 95/98, NT Only

A brand-new arrival, and a modelling-only package to boot (it has rendering and lighting capabilities, but these are really for preview only). What Rhino does is handle NURBS curves in almost any way you can imagine. You can generate surfaces from multiple NURBS curves, then blend, trim and split them any way you want to create almost any form you want.

Surfaces can be offset, curves and patches extracted, NURBS curves can be fitted on to existing polygon meshes, and holes can be punched through surfaces and solids, all with remarkable ease. A myriad of import and export file formats are also supported. However, the drawback is an interface that's a little too complex for its own good, presenting you with a specific tool button for just about every operation it thinks you'll want to perform, rather than relying on a more general paradigm such as that employed in Inspire and LightWave.

One advantage that Rhino has over other modellers here (except ZOOM) is that it's CAD-accurate and can supply metric information about the object being modelled (volume enclosed, volume and mass of material, etc), which makes it an excellent choice for product designers.

Amapi Studio 4.0 (£399) Win 95/98, NT, MacOS, Linux This is another package that scrapes into the classification due to its strong showing in the modelling department. Amapi, from French developer Yonowat, started out as a modeller only (and is still available as such as Amapi Workshop) and boasts some highend features, notably NURBS modelling and an interface that allows direct, interactive modelling in 3D space. That said, its interface is its biggest stumbling block: you'll either love it or hate it. The first thing you'll see is a 3D depth-cued wireframe workspace, and an almost total lack of interface. Tools are arranged in an arc in the top right-hand corner, and to choose between the three sets you have to sweep the cursor off the right-hand edge of the screen. However, in version 4.0 there are options to put the tools in a traditional floating palette, and also to array frequently-needed functions in toolstrips across the top and bottom of the screen. Amapi contains tools that allow you to work on the model at volume, surface, and vertex level, directly in 3D, and an interesting and useful feature whereby the current working plane is defined as being the camera plane - where you look is where you build. You can then interactively set perpendicular height relative to the plane and pinpoint any point in 3D space to start building. It's a quirky, but effective, way of doing things, and you may find yourself giving up after half an hour, but there are many people who swear by it.

PiXELS 2.1 (£149) MacOS Only

PiXELS describes itself as a 'Character Animation Studio' and contains some features for controlling the movement of characters that are normally the preserve of high-end workstation programs. Again, it sneaks in due to its high-end features at a distinctly low-end price. The pointtagging system used to tie areas of mesh to an underlying Bones structure is very reminiscent of that used in SoftImage 3D and ElectricImage. Modelling is also very competent, being based on spline meshes (with a wide choice of spline types) and solid primitives, but the set-up for the procedural texturing can be a little mathematical for some people's tastes. The timeline is also one of the weirdest we've yet encountered, but is again reminiscent of SoftImage's Dope Sheet. In fact, the entire program feels a little like a mini SoftImage for the Mac.

That said, the interface is a little ropey (you can't multiple-select anything, for instance), and the preview rendering is unacceptably slow, although there is a 2.5 release just around the corner which should address these problems.

Presenter 3D 3.6/3.7 (Free) MacOS Only

No, your eyes do not deceive you - this high-end modelling, rendering and animation program is now completely free (apart from the cost of the phone call to download it from VIDI's website. ) VIDI has decided to close its doors, citing Apple's lack of support for the 3D market, and reckoning that it's too late to port to NT. So, as a gesture of goodwill, it is posting its final version, which may be version 3.7, for download.

Presenter, along with ElectricImage, was one of the Mac's best kept secrets - it is NASA's graphics department's weapon of choice: all those Space Shuttle and International Space Station animations were produced using it.

Presenter, like LightWave 3D, is split into two applications. It comprises a highly capable splinebased modelling environment, which was actually being used by Electric Image users who were tiring of their modeller ever turning up, and a timeline-based rendering and animation environment. The modeller is capable of great subtlety in modelling organic forms, and is also highly numerically accurate. In many ways it's the equal of Rhino on the MacOS, but with a simpler interface and a more artistic feel to it. The animation module, Presenter, is a real joy to work with, although, along with Modeller, some areas of the interface are a little ragged in design. It uses the tried-and-trusted timeline/keyframe method of setting motion-control information, but also comes with libraries of predefined RealPhysics behaviours, such as flocking, shattering and jiggling, which can be simply dragged and dropped on to objects in the timeline. Doubleclicking a behaviour allows you to set its parameters.

Presenter is also the only desktop animation program to use a virtual soundstage: any object in an animation can have a soundtrack attached to it which can be picked up by variablesensitivity virtual microphones in the scene. Effects such as distance fade and Doppler effects are all handled internally without the need for an external soundtrack.

Output rendering is via Phong (extremely fast) or raytracing (slower, but exquisite quality). It's also the only desktop system to interface with PIXAR's RenderMan software (discontinued on Mac and Windows, but still available and usable), and has one of the best interfaces that we've seen for accessing and changing the parameters of RenderMan shaders.

Add to this an inbuilt Kinemagics system for high-level inverse kinematics, and multi-target morphing for effortless lipsynching, and you have one very powerful program.

Three years ago the package used to cost around £3200, and even the last commercial release was around the £1500 mark. Now it's yours for free. Directions mooted for Presenter now are releasing the source code via the Open Software Foundation, which could possibly herald a free Linux port or, as seems more likely, a hefty tutorial book which will come with the program free on CD.

Watch this space.

Sven SurfaceSuite Pro ($495) Win 95/98/, NT Painter 3D 1.0 (£299) Win 95/98, NT, MacOS

These two programs are considered together, since they address a long-time thorn in the side of 3D artists, namely aligning surface texture maps to models for greater realism. Both programs aim to avoid the streaking and smearing that can result when bitmapped texture maps are projected on to object surfaces, although both go about it in an entirely different way.

Painter 3D (formerly Detailer) from Metacreations allows you to paint directly on the surface of 3D models imported into it. For any useful results, models must be exported in a format which supports UV texturing coordinates, for instance Wavefront OBJ files. The array of painting tools is similar to MetaCreations' flagship 2D program Painter 5.5, which is to say, very comprehensive. Texture, bump, transparency and alpha masks can all be painted in real time on surfaces, and you can see your strokes appearing on an expanded 'net' of your surface, but the process is sometimes a hit-and-miss affair.

Brushstrokes never quite seem to land where you want them to, and the response of the painting interface is very slow, unless you give it masses of RAM and the fastest processors out there.

Painter ships with two plug-ins which enable direct data transfer between Painter 3D and MetaCreations' own RayDream Studio and between Kinetix' 3D Studio MAX. For use with other programs, you'll have to export your painted bitmaps and reposition them in your rendering program.

Sven Technologies' SurfaceSuite Pro takes an altogether different approach to fitting texture maps, eschewing painting tools altogether. Raw input comes in the form of bitmapped images from 2D programs like Photoshop, or from scanned photographs. Surface suite ten uses an ingenious, patented technology which allows you to define points on the bitmap and map them to points on your 3D models. These points can then be used as handles to stretch the bitmap to fit the model's surface.

SurfaceSuite has a complementary suite of 'Live Links' which allows the program to exchange data with a wide variety of modelling/ rendering packages such as LightWave 3D, Maya, SoftImage 3D and 3D Studio MAX. For other unsupported programs, bitmaps must be exported and positioned, but SurfaceSuite's target mapping means the bitmaps tend to come in bang on target, with only minimal tweaking needed.

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